As CultureMap’s resident holiday show curmudgeon, I’ve made the case many a time that it’s the repetition of the same Christmas shows year after year that cause me to grumble “Humbug.” But give me a new show bauble to unwrap and I’m as excited as five-year-old on Christmas morning. Luckily, we seem to have been some very good little performing arts-loving girls and boys this year because Santa Thespian has brought a flurry of new plays and productions to snow down on Houston. So here’s our 2016 performing arts list to check twice for the best naughty, nice and wonderful new shows to see this season.
Houston Ballet presents The Nutcracker (November 25-December 27)
The biggest new production this year is the also one of the oldest holiday performing arts traditions in Houston. After 29 years, the Houston Ballet retired the beloved Ben Stevenson version and now premieres artistic director Stanton Welch’s brand new Nutcracker. Welch went back to the original Nutcracker and the Mouse King story by E. T. A. Hoffmann for inspiration, a move that brings young Clara back into the center of the ballet. With a bit of magical help from the mysterious Drosselmeyer, Clara’s active imagination and heroism shape the story and open doors into the snowy and sweet lands. With the help of hundreds of dancers, artists and artisans, Welch has created a staging so richly delicious in colors, sights and sounds, you’ll probably gain five pounds just watching it but burn them off dancing out the Wortham doors. CultureMap dance critic Theodore Bale calls it “the most spectacular Nutcracker” he’s known.
Houston Grand Opera presents It’s a Wonderful Life (December 2-December 17)
But wait there’s another Clara in town taking center stage this holiday season and you won’t have to go very far to see her. In fact, she will be tidying up another magical world just a stairway away from Nutcracker’s Clara in the Wortham’s Cullen Theater as Houston Grand Opera presents the world premiere of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s It’s a Wonderful Life based on Frank Capra’s iconic film. In this operatic retelling of the classic tale of how one man’s honesty and goodness can change the lives of a whole town, angel-in-training Clarence becomes the soprano Clara. Expect the core message, it’s a wonderful life, to remain the same, but George Bailey’s journey to that epiphany will be filled with wonder and surprises, thanks to Heggie’s music, Scheer’s libretto and Clara’s beautiful meddling.
If you haven’t gotten your fill of It’s a Wonderful Life and music, on December 9 head down to Jones Hall for a special screening of the film accompanied by Constantine Kitsopoulos conducting the Houston Symphony and members of the Houston Symphony Chorus for a live performance of Dimitri Tiomkin’s score.
TUTS presents Into the Woods (December 6-18)
Imagining and re-imagining classic tales seems to be a theme this year in the Theater District as Theatre Under the Stars roams deep Into the Woods and brings back the beautiful monster that is the Tony Award-winning Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical. While there’s not a holiday even mentioned in the story, Into the Woods is an apt musical for this season of long nights as Sondheim and Lapine delve into all the darkness, light and wise comedy created as the heroes, villains and innocent bystanders of favorite fairytales meet and change each others’ lives. This new production offers quite the sweet treat for the eyes as TUTS has brought in Ann Hould-Ward, the costume designer for the original Broadway production of Into the Woods, to revisit her Tony nominated designs for the first time in 30 years.
Stages Theatre presents Panto Wonderful Wizard (November 30-December 31)
One fairytale that isn’t retold in those Woods is the Wizard of Oz, but Stages Theatre has us covered with Panto Wonderful Wizard. Several years ago, Stages began a tradition of offering a brand new Panto show every year, which quickly became a very happy alternative for both those theater-lovers who like to see a familiar holiday performance every year and those who want something sparkling and new in their solstice stocking. Panto is a British theater favorite that Stages gives a decidedly Texas twist. With a wink and a nudge, nudge, Panto brings well-known fairy and folk tales to the stage laced with farce and audience interaction for the kids and topical and occasionally naughty humor for the adults. Houston actor Rutherford Cravens wrote Wonderful Wizard and Carolyn Johnson, who most recently dazzled audiences as Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow, directs.
Obsidian Theatre presents Go Yell It on the Mountain (December 1-23)
For something completely different, Obsidian Theatre has a satiric musical take on what happens when church, show biz and Christmas exuberance collide in Go Yell It on the Mountain. From the concept by Obsidian’s artistic director Tom Stell comes the story of Second New Greater Lesser Mt Zion Bethel Church’s plight as the nearby megachurch wants to tear down the 75 year-old house of worship to build their own bowling alley. Bethel’s solution to stage the ultimate Christmas pageant to save their church.
And there's more........
If still you’re still on the look out for a new show with traditional holiday spirit, Ensemble Theatre presents the regional premiere of the musical The First Noel (November 17-December 30) about three generations of one family finding hope as they cope with loss, and the A.D. Players will stage Jeannette Clift George’s O Little Town of Bagels, Teacakes and Hamburger Buns (November 30-December 23) as the last production in the Grace Theater before moving into their new home, the Jeannette and L.M. George Theater, in 2017.
For those in the mood for some drama or comedy without one bell jingling, there are theatrical alternatives. 4th Wall Theatre celebrates Shakespeare’s 400th birth year with a pared down Much Ado About Nothing (December 1-24) and a five-actor cast playing all the roles. Meanwhile, Main Street Theater continues its monumental Wolf Hall production (now until December 18). It’s the only regional company in the U.S that has attempted the two-part series chronicling Thomas Cromwell’s powerful rise in the court of Henry VIII.
What great performance will you be unwrapping this year?