Aww, the holidays, the most wonderful time of the year. . .unless you’re a Houston theater-lover like myself. In that case, Christmas time might be the most dreaded time of the year because while following traditions can make the season richer, seeing the same holiday show for the tenth year in a row has become akin to receiving that perpetually regifted fruitcake. You know it was probably delicious once, but now it’s gone a bit stale.
But don’t despair, this year many local theater companies are giving us some fresh, original tales to satisfy the grinch-iest of us all. With a regional and even three world premiere musicals, there are theatrical presents for audiences looking for spiritual, comic or even cynical shows. If you too are bah humbugging the glittering tradition fare, here’s my list of the naughty and nicest new plays, to help enrich your celebration of the old year with theater.
But don’t despair, this year many local theater companies are giving us some fresh, original tales to satisfy the grinch-iest of us all.
Ensemble Theatre presents Djembe and the Forest of Christmas Forgotten (runs until Dec. 22)
The first of our world premieres, Djembe is a contemporary musical fairytale, by Ensemble favorite Carlton Leake, which contains many of the elements of classic myths. There’s a exiled king, his seemingly evil sister, two spunky heroines, who are spiritual twins, and a magical kingdom dying because the people have forgotten the meaning of Christmas. Everyone, including the mistletoe sings and dances and always looks fabulous in costume designer Reggie Ray’s creations.
Ensemble artistic director Eileen J. Morris was thinking big when the company commissioned Djembe for The Ensemble Theatre. She told CultureMap she wanted to develop a production “with an African American perspective, not only for the Greater Houston Community, but as a contribution to the global repertoire of theatre productions.”
Stages Theatre presents Panto Goldilocks (runs through Jan. 5)
When Stages first brought British Panto to Houston several years ago and gave it a Texas twist, artistic director Kenn McLaughlin knew he had found a way to combine one of the oldest forms of traditional holiday theater with the American love of all things new and shiny. Each year, the company tackles a brand new musical with an irreverent, sometimes slightly naughty take on an old fairy or folktale. This year’s Panto Goldilocks by actress and screenwriter Genevieve Allenbury harkens back not just to the most famous home invasion in literature but to '60s James Bond flicks. While there are usually bawdy jokes for the adults embedded in the comic chaos, they’ll whoosh right over most of the little kids’ heads, even as they’re called on stage to participate in the fun.
Theatre Under the Stars presents Elf-The Musical (runs Dec. 6-22)
Like many hit Broadway plays, Elf first came into existence as a movie, a Will Ferrell Christmas vehicle about Buddy, an orphan boy accidentally picked up by Santa during his world rounds on Christmas Eve. Raised by elves, Buddy grows up thinking he’s just had a bigger growth spurt than most of his North Pole community. Once he learns the truth, that he’s Elf in spirit, but not in ethnicity, Buddy makes a journey to New York to find his birth father.
The 2003 movie was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2010, and now Buddy is popping up throughout the country, with TUTS presenting the only Texas production this season. TUTS is labeling the show PG, but with only a few “hells” and and an odd “screw you,” it’s probably a show the whole family can enjoy.
Stages presents The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical (runs until Dec. 29)
When you’re ready to ditch the whole family for some good ole fashion holiday sex, drinking, and rock n roll time, head back to Stages for their other world premiere of the season, the mildly sacrilegious Christmas sequel to one of their most successful productions, The Great American Trailer Park Musical.
All is not well two weeks before Christmas in the Armadillo Acres Trailer Park, where residents Pickles, Lin, and Betty, are set on winning a ten thousand dollar prize for having the best decorated trailer park in Florida. Only the park’s Christmas curse, in the form of grouchy Darlene Seward and her breastaurant entrepreneur boyfriend Jackson can stop them.
The plot is about as heavy as fake, decorative snow, and just as intentionally tacky, but those with some world literature knowledge might catch nods to the classics like a Christmas Carol parody, the trailer park version of a Greek Chorus and even a little deus ex machina plot resolution, or in this crazy play (spoiler alert) deus ex Christmas tree.
Main Street Theater presents A Civil War Christmas (runs until Dec. 22)
For a much more weighty and yet sometimes transcending experience, head to Main Street for the regional premiere of Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Paula Vogel’s attempt at creating an American Christmas Carol. I saw the play opening night and believe she achieves that goal.
A runaway slave and her young daughter, a dying Jewish Union soldier, Abraham Lincoln, Walt Whitman, Mary Todd Lincoln and Elizabeth Keckley, a Virginia farm boy determined to runaway and become a Confederate soldier, and a black Union sergeant will all meet, just miss meeting, and unknowingly save each others lives on the banks of the Potomac on the coldest of Christmas nights in 1864. Vogel melds history and imagination to create a Christmas story of our country’s greatest sins and triumphs. At its center, reverberates the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow words from “Christmas Bells,” “God is not dead, nor doth He sleep; The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Main Street’s last theatrical present is this holiday message we can keep safe in our hearts well into the New Year.