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OutSmart’s Fall 2019 Arts & Entertainment Guide

Houston's theater scene just keeps getting better.

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(Martha Graham Dance Company, Oct. 18)

Why is Houston’s theater scene so prolific and so good? It can’t be the weather. Must be the talent. Once here, whether they are transplants or natives, artists don’t leave—and that’s a good thing. New York is the center of the world, Chicago has plentiful theaters, San Francisco is . . .well, San Francisco, and Louisville has the Humana Festival. But our Bayou City takes hold like a mudbug and doesn’t let go. Every year, our theater scene only gets better. We may drop a theater or two along the way, but the others take up the slack as if carrying a banner onto the ramparts. The following is but a partial listing of what’s in store this fall. There’s much gold to be mined. There’s no place like home.

White Guy on the Bus
August 23 – September 7
Dirt Dogs Theatre Company
MATCH, 3400 Main St.
Bruce Graham’s piercing dissection of race and class in 21st-century America (2015 Chicago premiere; 2017 Off-Broadway production) is cinematic in its telling. Rich white guy meets struggling single black mom on a Philadelphia bus. Their lives and disparate backgrounds collide in shocking ways. It delivers two gut punches that any playwright would savor. As the Philadelphia Enquirer critic described the pre-Broadway show, “Whatever beliefs you sit down with, prepare to have them assaulted. Whatever courage you possess, muster it to see this production.” Enough said.

‘Giselle’

Giselle
September 6 – 15
Houston Ballet
Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave.
The epitome of Romantic ballet, this ghost story with a dramatic mad scene for the title character has been a staple of companies around the world since its Paris premiere in 1841. The choreography tests the male lead (he must dance himself to death, in one of ballet’s most difficult scenes) and the corps (they must appear to be ghostly and provocative, in order to lure the unsuspecting males into their deathly grip). It’s wonderfully diaphanous and spooky, as Adolphe Adam’s leitmotif melodies waft through the spectral show. Houston Ballet artistic director Stanton Welch bases his intricate steps on those of 19th-century master choreographer Marius Petipa, whose 1886 production for the legendary Mariinsky Theatre changed Giselle for the ages.

These Shining Lives
September 6 – 28
Theater Southwest, 8944-A Clarkcrest St.
Ottawa, Illinois, is known for two historic events: the first Lincoln-Douglas debate in 1858 and the radium poisoning of factory girls who worked at the Radium Dial Company for Westclox. The young women, painting watch dials with toxic iridescent radium and repeatedly told everything was harmless, were taught to sharpen their brushes in their mouths. “Lip, dip, paint” was the deadly instruction. While scientists shielded themselves behind lead walls, the girls ingested the garish glowing paint (for a penny-and-a-half per dial), painting themselves to a grisly death by cancer of the jaw. Many died. And then they sued. Based on this true story, author Melanie Marnich, known for her TV work on Big Love and The Affair, uses real-life worker Catherine Donahue as narrator in this story of social injustice.

Keep It Brassy 3
September 7 – October 19
Music Box Theater2623 Colquitt St.
In their latest cabaret revue, five irrepressible singers/actors/dancers (Rebekah Dahl, Brad Scarborough, Cay Taylor, Luke Wrobel, and Kristina Sullivan) pit their innate Broadway brass against the real thing—a horn section added to Glenn Sharp’s hot-to-trot jazz quartet. Look to hear incomparable renditions of the finest from Blood, Sweat & Tears, The Temptations, and Chicago. Blow, Gabriel, blow. By the way, TripAdvisor has rated MBT #1 for “Top Things to Do in Houston” and #1 for “Theaters, Concerts and Shows.” Let’s keep those ratings—go see a Music Box show!

A Chorus Line

A Chorus Line
September 10 – 22
Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS)
Hobby Center, 800 Bagby St.
Which Broadway musical is a singular sensation? OK, that’s too easy for anyone who’s a real show-tune baby. Premiering on Broadway in 1975, Michael Bennett’s paean to the showbiz gypsy is a classic. It blew away the competition at the Tonys (nine awards, including Best Musical, Book, Music, Choreography) and also won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. (Sadly, the 1985 film version was a wreck in every way.) Full of dance, passion, drama, comedy, and those radiant Marvin Hamlisch/Eddie Kleban songs, the musical blows away the competition, even today. See the show live, as it was intended to be seen, and enter Broadway heaven.

‘The Hiding Place’

The Hiding Place
September 13 – October 12
A.D. Players, 5420 Westheimer Rd.
The indefatigable Corrie ten Boom, the first female professional watchmaker in the Netherlands, was a saving angel during the Nazi conquest. She used her home and workshop in Haarlem as a “hiding place” for Jews and a meeting place for the Dutch Resistance. It is estimated that Boom rescued and resettled nearly 800 refugees. The house is now the Ten Boom Museum. Betrayed in 1944, the Nazis sent the Boom family to Ravensbruck concentration camp, where her father, brother, and sister were murdered. Corrie survived and was later honored by the Dutch and the Jews for her indomitable courage and rock-ribbed Christian faith. A.D. Players has an abiding interest in this story, as its founder, Jeanette Clift George (who died in 2017) played Corrie in the 1975 film version that also starred Julie Harris as sister Betsie. Ms. George was nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance. This world premiere, adapted from Ten Boom’s autobiography, was written by A.S. Peterson. It will be in warm, familial hands.

The Winter’s Tale

The Winter’s Tale
September 13 – October 13
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave.
Shakespeare’s great late play is The Immortal One’s ode to forgiveness. One of his richest works, Tale abounds with dark sexual overtones and jealousy run amok during the wintry court scenes in Sicily, then completely sails into pastoral romance for Acts III and IV (set in sunny Bohemia sixteen years later) where Shakespeare beguiles with some of his most inspired love lyrics. All is set right in Act V when the Bohemians and Sicilians intermingle, putting an end to the cold by ushering in springtime’s redemption where lost loves are reunited. There are still clouds, however (this being Shakespeare), for while time might heal all wounds, scars remain. Shakespeare ends his tale with sly ambiguity. Death and rebirth swirl through the play. Forgiveness and atonement are timeless. Winter’s harshness may yield to spring’s youth, but even so, another winter is not far behind.

Anka Sings Sinatra: His Songs, My Songs, My Way!
September 14
The Grand 1894 Opera House
2020 Postoffice St., Galveston
Holy ’50s pop star, is he still alive? I guess so, since he’s appearing in the season opener for The Grand’s 125th year! Hear Paul Anka’s tribute concert to his idol, Ol’ Blue Eyes. Anka is the legendary singer and songwriter whose catalog includes “Diana,” “Lonely Boy,” “Put Your Head on My Shoulder,” the theme song to the D-Day movie The Longest Day, Michael Jackson’s posthumous hit “This Is It,” Sinatra’s iconic “My Way,” Tom Jones’ “She’s a Lady,” and The Johnny Carson Show theme song. He wrote the music of our youth—my youth, anyway—and I apologize for thinking him dead, as he’s been on a grueling U.S. tour for over a year. (Lounge singers don’t die, they just tour.) Glad you’re still with us, Mr. Anka. Keep writing.

The Hard Problem
September 14 – October 6
Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd.
Only playwright Tom Stoppard could create a beguiling play about the “illusion of consciousness.” If you live a good life after a bad decision, can you ever atone? Are you still moral? When that bad decision confronts you, who is right? Anyone? Deep-dish problems are mother’s milk to Stoppard, who is probably the most intellectual of playwrights. He’s certainly the most playful, the most curious, and the best wordsmith. Main Street knows Stoppard (under its sure hand, his triptych Coast of Utopia dazzled), and they are the perfect company to unwind his knotty plot and make it comprehensible and utterly fascinating. 

Stravinsky’s Firebird
September 19, 21, 22
Houston Symphony
Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St.
When legendary Ballets Russes impresario Sergei Diaghilev unveiled Michel Fokine’s fairy-tale ballet Firebird in Paris (1910), he unleashed a force of nature. The world was introduced to the music of Igor Stravinsky, and it was never the same again. Firebird was the composer’s first commissioned score. Diaghilev, no stranger to genius, knew he had found another jewel to add to his amazing coterie: phenom dancers Nijinsky and Karsavina, designers Bakst and Benois, and choreographer Fokine. Rachmaninoff called the score “pure Russia.” Amid the ephemeral chromaticism that recalls Stravinsky’s mentor Rimsky-Korsakov, there’s a lushness that pushes back into Tchaikovsky and Glazanov. It was a whole new musical world, strange and fabulous. Still to come was Fokine’s Petroushka (1911), the revolutionary Rite of Spring (1913, choreographed by Nijinsky), and all of the Diaghilev productions for Paris. The Ballets Russes rendered Paris dumbfounded. Stravinsky’s music would soon leave the world dumbfounded.

‘Locally Grown. World Renowned.’

Locally Grown. World Renowned.
September 19 – 29
Houston Ballet
Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave.
Houston Ballet’s mixed-rep programs have always drawn the dance cognoscenti—usually those a bit weary of full-length chestnut classics with happy peasants in red boots. Here come the moderns to whip the fairies, trolls, princesses, and snowflakes off the stage and replace those old tropes with sex, personal relationships, and striking physicality. The centerpiece of this program must be Edward Liang’s startling Murmuration, set to Ezio Bosso’s new-agey Violin Concerto No. 1. Kinetic to a fault, it swoops, swirls, and mimics birds in flight, all in tribute to human community. It was a huge hit at its HB world premiere (2013), and its rhapsodic, joyful evocation has not dimmed. Also on the program are James Kudulka’s Passion and two world premieres by first soloist Oliver Halkowitch and rising modern choreographer Disha Zhang. Never a dull moment at a mixed-rep by HB.

School Girls: Or, the African Mean Girls Play
September 19 – October 13
Ensemble Theatre, 3535 Main St.
The title says it all. Think Mean Girls go to Ghana. At an exclusive boarding school, alpha female Paulina (brilliant, beautiful, and tyrannical) seems destined to enter the Miss Ghana Pageant. Until Ericka arrives—from America, no less. She’s equally brilliant, beautiful, and lighter skinned. The groups collide as only young girls can, mashing under the social pressure of needing to be liked and on the A-list. This may sound ripe for sit-com treatment, but author Jocelyn Bioh adds charming divergence to the standard fare.


Tragedy, A Tragedy
September 27 – October 20
Catastrophic Theatre
MATCH, 3400 Main St.
Before playwright Will Eno became Will Eno—before Thom Paine (based on nothing)—there was this ironic satire that premiered in London in 2001. The English didn’t get it. We’re in a television studio where stoic veteran news anchor Frank reports on the end of the world. Reporters in the field are hapless, hopeless, or in despair, trying to make sense of the senseless, while Frank stumbles on while ignoring the constant absurdist interruptions from on-high. “People might consider holding hands, or panicking and running!” A Witness, at the end, puts the clueless, TV-obsessed people in their place. Eno’s a master at talk that confuses, while the character vainly attempts to clarify. It’s comedy of the dark.

Salt, Root, and Roe
October 4 – 20
Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy.
The remote coast of Wales is the place. Eighty-year-old twin sisters Anest and Iola are the protagonists. Alzheimer’s and the looming fate of old age are the villains. Daughter Menna is the change. Atmospheric, charmed by folklore, and larded by the surreal moments nestled inside everyday life, Tim Price’s Salt is a loving prayer to the comfort of family and the abiding strength of two old characters who have seen plenty and don’t want to see any more. There’s whimsy, dreamy metaphors, and the saline smell of the sea on the coast of north Pembrokeshire, but family is the binding tie. Sisterly love rules, even in death.

Vietgone
October 4 – November 3
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave.
It’s 1970s America, and the Vietnamese war refugees have settled in. They expected a nicer place. “That’s what they sorta advertised,” says the mother of Tong, our female protagonist. During the fall of Saigon, Tong lost her husband, while our male protagonist, Quang, lost his wife. They and others have been relocated to this fantasyland where the natives say, “Yee-haw! Get ’er done! Cheeseburger, waffle fries, cholesterol!” They’ve passed through the looking glass, for sure. Author Qui Nguyen tickles us, then knocks us in the ribs in this raucous immigrant remix. No one is spared. Rap is used as a lingua franca, and Shane Rett’s original music is full of sass and snap.

Tosca
October 5 – 13
Opera in the Heights, 1703 Heights Blvd.
There’s hardly a more visceral opera in all the rep than this 1900 pot-boiler from Puccini. It’s all so simple—elemental, really. Love. Betrayal. Murder. Torture. Revenge. Gigantic emotions, gigantic settings, gigantic music. Painter Cavaradossi (the tenor) loves opera singer Tosca (the soprano). He’s a revolutionary and under suspicion from police chief Scarpia (the baritone), who lusts after Tosca and will do anything to get her into bed. She, in turn, will do anything to stay out of it. While poor Cavaradossi is being tortured by Scarpia’s goons, Tosca is entertained at dinner by Scarpia, where a very sharp knife is lying on the table. She tries to melt his resolve by singing the haunting, now-world-famous aria “Vissi d’arte” (I lived for love). But Scarpia’s not moved, and he forces himself on her. “Here is Tosca’s kiss!” she screams, killing him. The rest is opera history, as is her final death plunge from the Castle Saint Angelo, shouting revenge to Scarpia for killing her lover. It’s all too much—and yet, for true opera fanatics, not nearly enough.

Spring Awakening
October 8 – 20
Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS)
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St.
Ah, the power of youth, in all its pain and pleasure, secrets and raw truth, innocence and rebellion! It’s all here in this powerfully dramatic musical retelling of Frank Wedekind’s 1891 sex-pressionistic play that earned eight 2006 Tonys, including Best Musical. Think Matilda, without telekinesis and more raunch. These young rebels only want to become adults, but the road can be full of ruts and too many detours. Spring is the time for regeneration, you know, and these kids want to experiment. The parents are there to stop them. Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s music and lyrics use rock as progenitor, but there’s plenty of Broadway pizzazz in it, too. It’s a defining show, all around.

The Glass Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie
October 11 – November 2
4th Wall Theater Company
Studio 101, Spring Street Studios
Tennessee Williams’ first success (1944) opened up the doors to the fame he so craved. He did awfully well for a time (his masterpiece, A Streetcar Named Desire, followed in 1949, then Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955, Sweet Bird of Youth in 1959, and Night of the Iguana in 1961). It was a highly successful run—until it wasn’t. Drinking and pills took their toll, and he never seemed totally happy with his personal relationships, although he lived on-and-off with Frank Merlo for 14 years in Manhattan and Key West. He never got his writing groove back, and he was constantly galled by critics and friends comparing his weak later work against his earlier strong successes. But his early work was magical. Filled with longing and regret, and aching nostalgia, Menagerie speaks with a special heartbreak quality in American theater. It stands alone.

Lysistrata
October 16 – November 3
Classical Theatre Company
The DeLuxe Theater, 3303 Lyons Ave.
Having lost its home on Montrose to developers, Classical has now moored at the DeLuxe, the newly renovated Art Deco theater in the Fifth Ward. For its 12th season, it presents the mother of all sex comedies, Aristophanes’ deliciously bawdy Lysistrata (411 B.C). Faced with continual warfare between Athens and Sparta, enterprising Lysistrata manages to convince the cities’ women to stage a sex strike against their husbands and lovers until they force the men into peace. If it’s staged as the ancients would have liked, there will be erect leather phalluses poking through the chitons for laughs. Athenians liked their comedy coarse and lowdown. Subtlety wasn’t a concept back then.

Martha Graham Dance Company
October 18
Society for the Performing Arts
Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St.
Although she had many forebears, modern dance has proclaimed Martha Graham as its founder. Rigorous, structured, intelligent, the lean and athletic Graham (she couldn’t jump, so she stayed close to the floor) started her company in 1926 and influenced an entire generation. Lauded as both a priestess and goddess, her work usually used original music, startling minimalist sets, and simple costumes. She was an elemental and serious artist who didn’t create many comedies. (No, dance is an art and must be treated as such—it’s good for you, like spinach.) Her acolytes branched out as soon as they could start their own companies—Pearl Lang, Anna Sokolow, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Eric Hawkins. Her angular movement, with its bursts of “contraction and release” and symbolic subjects, weren’t to everyone’s taste, but she stayed active for almost 70 years. It was quite a career. After an absence of 15 years, her company (now run by former Graham dance star Janet Eilber), returns in The Eve Project, a potpourri of Graham’s works about women (Herodiade, Circe, Chronicle) augmented with dances from choreographers Pam Tamowitz, Maxine Doyle, and Bobbi Jene Smith. Women rule.


Cats

October 22 – 27
Broadway at the Hobby
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St.
What’s gayer than Grizabella aloft on her semi tire, ascending into pussy heaven, surrounded by mist and pinspots, wailing “Memory”? I mean, really. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s blockbuster musical (and there’s no other word to describe the phenomenon) became a cult, like Jonestown. One either loathes it or adores it. There’s no middle ground. Basically, it’s a revue. There’s no true plotline, only a series of sketches as the Jellicle cats do their furry showbiz thing. The score is clever, no doubt about that, as Webber does a bit of English panto, a little Gilbert & Sullivan, a snatch of Puccini, some jazz, and a lot of Broadway belt. It’s a good score, just not much of a show. And have you seen the trailer for the Tom Hooper movie, due out this December? Oh dear, this doesn’t look good at all (isn’t Taylor Swift in a bad cat suit redundant?). The musical has played everywhere in the known world, in revivals upon revivals. It has a trillion lives, and has grossed close to $4 billion. Who’s laughing now?

Silent Film with Rob Landes: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
October 25
The Grand 1894 Opera House
2020 Postoffice St., Galveston
In 1920, actor John Barrymore was perhaps the most famous man on earth. Handsome and charismatic, he was already known as “the great profile”—and if you didn’t know that, you’d see it soon enough in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Paramount Pictures’ silent classic based on R.L. Stevenson’s phenomenally successful Victorian novel about man’s dual nature, where every other shot is Barrymore in profile. There hasn’t been a screen star since who looks as good as he does from the side. He looks pretty good from the front, too, and was one of the first Broadway stars to thoroughly embrace Hollywood, making his film debut in 1913. Barrymore’s Jekyll is as unfaithful an adaptation as any before or since (the first filmed in prehistoric 1908, with subsequent versions in 1931 (with Fredric March) and 1941 (with Spencer Tracy). But Barrymore added a panoply of stage technique to evil Hyde, and the transformation scene is a marvelous blend of naked ham and Max Factor. Rendered appropriately claustrophobic on the Paramount back lot in Astoria, New York, Victorian London has authentic-looking brick archways, numerous gaslights, and lots of atmospheric fog. In one of silent cinema’s most impressively chilling images, Jekyll, debauched and lying in bed getting weaker, is symbolically overcome by a giant spider. It’s absolutely frightening. Original live musical accompaniment is provided by the multi-talented organist-composer-jazz musician Rob Landes.


Saul

October 25 – November 8
Houston Grand Opera
Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave.
There was a law in England, enforced by the censorious Lord Chamberlain and the Bishop of London, that prohibited biblical subjects on the stage. That wily Saxon George Frideric Handel, being an inveterate impresario and crafty businessman, realized that he could skirt the prohibition by presenting biblical stories as concert pieces for soloists, chorus, and orchestra. Why bother with an opera house and all of those expensive sets and costumes? He also knew that the days of florid Baroque opera were waning, so all  he needed was his glorious music. He coined the novel name “oratorio” for these productions, and the public ate them up. Handel’s gamble paid off handsomely as tales like Solomon, Israel in Egypt, Esther, Judas Maccabaeus, Samson, Jeptha, and Belshazzar poured out of him. Handel never lost his inventiveness, his deep-dish sense of melody to depict character, or his knack for soaring choral effects. With a libretto from Charles Jennens (who would also pen Messiah three years later), Saul depicts the old king of Israel and his on/off relationship with young David, who would become the next king. Listen for the famed “Funeral March,” the tenor’s role as the Witch of Endor, and any of those magisterial choral moments. The Bible sings magnificently.

Enchanted April
October 25 – November 16
Theater Southwest,
8944-A Clarkcrest St.
Based on the 1991 movie and its original 1922 novel by Elizabeth von Arnim, Matthew Barber’s stage version is as comfy and warm as a chenille bedspread. Unhappily married, Mrs. Arbuthnot and Mrs. Wilkins decide to take a holiday and find respite on the shores of the Mediterranean. To share expenses for their rented castle, they invite the feisty, elderly Mrs. Fisher and the very wealthy Lady Caroline to join them. Naturally, the four disparate women find common ground after a series of comic reversals, dramatic reveals, and the arrival of the men at the hen house. They all rediscover love and hope in the sunny Mediterranean clime. Only in Italy.

Bernadette Peters

Bernadette Peters
November 2
Society for the Performing Arts
Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St.
Beloved theater diva Ms. Peters has shined onstage and in the movies for, what, fifty years? She never dims, even after three Tony awards, three Drama Desk awards, multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations, and four Grammys for her original Broadway cast albums. She is a legend on Broadway, especially in the work of Stephen Sondheim, having starred in Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Gypsy, A Little Night Music, and Follies, as well as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song and Dance, Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, Jerry Hermann’s Mack and Mabel and, most recently, his Hello, Dolly!. She’s an original Broadway Baby. But don’t forget her film work: Silent Movie, The Jerk, Pennies from Heaven, and a slew of television that includes the Muppet Show, The Carol Burnett Show, Will & Grace, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, and Mozart in the Jungle. She’s been everywhere. Now she’s in Jones Hall, and we can’t wait.

Miracle on 34th Street: A Live Musical Radio Play
November 6 – December 15
Stages Repertory Theatre,
3201 Allen Pkwy.
There was a time, long before you were born, when radio adapted hit films. The best of the lot was Lux Radio Theatre, a CBS broadcast from 1934 through 1955. For most of those years, it was hosted by legendary producer/director Cecil B. DeMille, whose sign-off was just as legendary: “This is Cecil B. DeMille saying good night to you from Hollywood.” It’s no surprise that one of the adaptations from Lux’s 1947 season was one of the most popular films of that year, Miracle on 34th Street, written by Lance Arthur Smith and based on the film’s screenplay by George Seaton—which was  based on an original story by Valentine Davies, who subsequently won an Academy Award for Best Story. This Christmas perennial is set in a radio studio, so be prepared for sound effects (Christmas bells, anyone?) and audience participation. With original music and lyrics by Jon Lorenz, Stages sets an early holiday mood.

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back—In Concert
November 8, 9 & 10
Houston Symphony
Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St.
Oh geez, it’s time to project another hit film above the Jones Hall stage while the Houston Symphony plays the film’s orchestra soundtrack live. How they separate the film’s music track from the dialogue and sound effects is magic technology, for sure, but what’s the point? This isn’t the first time the Houston Symphony has tried this gimmick, so it must work. I wouldn’t know, I’d rather watch at home—or wait until they play some really good film score, like Korngold’s golden oldie The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Dear Evan Hansen
November 12 – 24
Broadway at the Hobby
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St.
This Tony winner for Best Musical (2017) is a true tearjerker of the best kind. In a terribly misguided effort to be liked and accepted, social misfit Evan lies about a friendship with a student who committed suicide after reading Evan’s therapy assignment, thinking it was a letter meant for him. When the letter is discovered, everybody thinks it was the boy’s suicide note. Evan can’t tell his parents, or the boy’s, and his guilt and confusion grow exponentially as he becomes ever more entrenched in the original lie that has turned Evan into a school hero. Being accepted and liked is so universally desired—and not just for the young—that our hearts melt for Evan, who can’t extricate himself from what he started. With its stirring music and lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and true-to-life book by Steven Levenson, the musical is one of Broadway’s latest gems. It shimmers and throws off light and catches the tears in your eyes. Redemption hasn’t sounded so good in years.

More Than Christmas
November 14 – December 29
Ensemble Theatre,
3535 Main St.
In this world-premiere holiday musical by Celeste Bedford Walker, the Mercy family gathers for Christmas. Walker wrote the Ensemble’s past comedy hit Sassy Mammas, and its composer, Stephanie Blue, has taught piano for 18 years at Houston’s MacGregor elementary. The Ensemble press release says “there’s more than merriment behind each smile, and presents aren’t the only things that get unwrapped.” That sounds promising. The director is Ensemble’s artistic director Eileen J. Morris, so the production is in extremely capable hands. As Ms. Blue writes in her MacGregor profile, “Music gives wings to the mind and flight to the imagination.” Let’s hope so.

A Christmas Carol
November 15 – December 29
Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Ave.
What more is there to say about this Alley holiday perennial? If you haven’t seen it after all these years, you’ve been living under a rock. Dickens isn’t mangled too badly in Michael Wilson’s somewhat faithful adaptation. There are too many ghosts right from the get-go, which lessens Scrooge’s redemption; the housekeeper is played in drag (don’t ask); and the spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Future aren’t at all how Dickens described them in his “ghostly little book.” But the spirit is willing, the Victorian flavor is there (but a bit buried), the costumes are lively, and Dickens’ timely message is front and center.

Baby Screams Miracle
November 22 – December 15
Catastrophic Theatre
MATCH, 3400 Main St.
Mother Nature packs a wallop—and I mean a wallop—in Clare Barron’s contemporary look at the American family. The storm that ravages Gabe and Carol’s rural home rivals the tempest in King Lear or that stunner of a tornado in The Wizard of Oz. Except this one never stops, and only lets up enough for the family to grasp what’s happening to them as they drive through endless destruction to a motel. Other family members arrive to check on them during a lull, then all hell breaks loose again. Gabe turns to God, but his Christian charity has boundaries. Prayers don’t help much when the windows crack, the roof is blown off, and a tree falls smack on top of their cabin. Where do you find grace or comfort when your world is literally being blown apart? Family? God? Yourself? Wherever it’s found, the tech wizards at Catastrophic have their work cut out. Actors too, of course, but at Catastrophic they have that covered.

The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberly
November 23 – December 22
Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Blvd.
Main Street has found a niche for its holiday productions, and her name is Jane Austen. They had great success with their exquisitely mounted Miss Bennett: Christmas at Pemberly, and the same authors, Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, have tweaked their prequel (or sequel, or whatever) into The Wichkams. Lydia’s wayward husband, hugely in debt and mired in scandal, has stumbled downstairs in the middle of the night. While the original play is about the goings-on upstairs, here we see the servants sorting out romantic entanglements downstairs while keeping the boisterous Wickham away from Lydia. The cook is imperial (as all cooks are in these BBC-inspired comedies), the groom is studious, and the new girl is feisty and intelligent. She reads books, for goodness’ sake. Smiling fondly after their first hit, Main Street is ready to serve up more Regency fun, tons of Empire dresses, and witty repartee. Jolly good show, what? 

The Nutcracker November 29 – December 29
Houston Ballet
Wortham Theater Center,
501 Texas Ave.
Stanton Welch’s production of this Christmas chestnut is opulent, like Ziegfeld goes to the ballet, and as busy as Santa’s elves on December 23. It is heavily detailed, solid as an oak, and beautifully crafted in a Broadway style not often seen on the ballet stage. There’s stage magic galore, plenty of falling snow, and delights for children of all ages. And what images Welch gives us: a tree that grows through the house’s roof, mice rustling down the aisles, a queen of snow who sparkles like someone out of Frozen, a candy-colored Land of Sweets (complete with an English bulldog that looks surprisingly like Churchill), an imperious Arabian lion dressed like an emir, a prissy Louis XIV besieged by frogs. The Snow Scene is exquisitely staged, with each successive layer of snowflakes flinging handfuls of snow with each piqué turn. It’s all white and glinting, a mirage of ice. If you want holiday cheer, this is the show.

El Milagro del Requerdo (The Miracle of Remembering)
December 5 – 22
Houston Grand Opera
Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave.
In its continuing quest for a holiday opera that will bring in the patrons, HGO returns to a tried-and-true idea: a world-premiere sequel to its first successful mariachi opera, Cruzar la Cara de la Luna (To Cross the Face of the Moon). In that one, family patriarch Laurentino relived his life in Michoacán, home to migrating monarch butterflies. He left his homeland to work in the U.S., leaving behind his wife and son. Mom crosses the desert to be with him, only to die on the journey. All this was set to José ‘Pepe’ Martinez’ snappy mariachi rhythms and ear-pleasing tunes. This new work is composed by José’s son Javier, and written by Cruzar’s Leonard Foglia. It takes us back to the beginning, on Christmas in Michoacán. HGO says the opera (?) “lovingly explores the themes of traditions, familial bonds, while dealing with life-changing decisions and the dream of something more.” So did the first one. We’ll see. But I know your feet will tap and you’ll want to salsa in the aisles.

An Evening with Jay Leno
December 6
Society for the Performing Arts
Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St.
TV’s beloved late-night host comes to Houston—to do what, exactly? An extended monologue? Fix a vintage Porsche? Whatever this evening augurs, it should be a fun time, pleasantly passed—much like The Tonight Show, which Leno hosted for more episodes than Johnny Carson (Leno has more shows under his belt, but Carson had more years). Heeere’s Jay!

¡Christmas Fiesta!
December 7
Mercury Baroque
Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas Ave.
Well, it’s not mariachi, but it’s a flavorful new-world mix of 17th-century Baroque music written in New Spain (a.k.a. México). Antonio de Salazar, an esteemed conductor and composer in Mexico City, was noted for his beautiful choral motets. Composer Santiago de Murcia, guitar master for Queen Maria Louisa of Savoy, probably never traveled to Mexico, but a few of his compositions were discovered there. He wrote popular dances, transcribed works to guitar, and wrote a treatise on playing the instrument. Acclaimed as the greatest guitarist of his generation, royal patronage didn’t do him any favors. He died penniless in Madrid in 1739.

Amahl and the Night Visitors
December 7, 8, 14
Opera in the Heights,
1703 Heights Blvd.
Once upon a time, back when television networks actually commissioned opera, Peter Herman Adler was the director of new-opera programming at NBC (can you believe TV once had opera programmers, too?). Adler commissioned Gian Carlo Menotti, renowned for composing The Consul (which had just won the Pulitzer Prize for Music) to write a short Christmas opera for broadcast on Christmas Eve in 1951. It was produced in Toscanini’s famed studio 8H in New York City, now the home of Saturday Night Live. The beloved opera, full of poignant holiday spirit, features a boy soprano as Amahl, the crippled shepherd boy who meets the Three Kings on their journey to Bethlehem. It has faith, a lush score, and funny Magi, one of them bearing a box of licorice. Instead of cartoon snowmen, or Mr. McGoo’s Christmas, Amahl is the right musical for this holy time of year.   

Elf

Elf
December 7 – 22
Theatre Under The Stars (TUTS)
Hobby Center for the Performing Arts, 800 Bagby St.
What’s more fun than Buddy the Elf, a human kid who inadvertently falls into Santa’s toy bag one Christmas Eve and is magically transported back to the North Pole to grow up? Based on the Will Farrell film, the Broadway musical is an utter delight, thanks to its sprightly score by Matthew Sklar, lyrics by Chad Beguelin, and the heartwarming (if rote) book by Thomas Meehan (Annie, The Producers) and Bob Martin (The Drowsy Chaperone, The Prom). The score is a classic example of Broadway music that has gone out of style. And how we’ve missed it—Sklar’s arrangements swing, like ’60s Sinatra or the best of Burt Bacharach. They have clever hooks to them, changing direction and shifting keys in surprisingly adept ways. The lyrics are brassy and sassy, like prime Frank Loesser. When mom and daughter write a letter to Santa, they cleverly decide to simply list what they don’t want. A ballad goes bluesy, but not too much. Rock, metal, and grunge have no place here; we’re definitely in Old Broadway land. It’s so nice to hear. Are there better musicals? Sure. Is there a better Christmas one? Not really. Will Elf do? Why not?

Handel’s Messiah
December 20, 21, 22
Houston Symphony
Jones Hall, 615 Louisiana St.
George Frideric Handel wrote so many masterpieces, it’s difficult to pick a favorite, but his perennial Messiah is truly one of the great works of art—any art. There’s nothing else in the rep quite like it. “Inspiring” should be used sparingly, but that’s the only description possible for his sublime 1742 oratorio. Although the work is about Christ’s life, Charles Jennens’ libretto is mainly Old Testament passages set into three sections: Birth, Passion, Aftermath. In his typically speedy style, Handel composed his masterwork in three weeks, even while dealing with stony censors and prickly prima-donna soloists. One year later, Messiah had its premiere in Dublin with Handel conducting from the harpsichord. Hard to believe, but it was only a modest success. It took decades for its triumphant message to work its magic. But once it took hold, this most uplifting score has remained forever with us, as majestic and haunting as the day “the great Saxon” finished it.

This article appears in the September 2019 edition of OutSmart magazine. 

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D.L. Groover

D.L. Groover writes on the arts for the Houston Press, OutSmart magazine, Arts & Culture, and Dance Source Houston. He has received two national awards for his theater criticism from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN), and has previously won three statewide Lone Star Press awards for the same. He is co-author of the irreverent appreciation Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin’s Press), now in its fourth printing.

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