Call me a Grinch. Call me Scrooge. I dread December. Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy the holidays. It’s the holiday shows I hate.
Eleven months of the year Houston contains a wealth of performing arts for any taste. However, just as soon as we’ve cleaned our Thanksgiving plates, the curtain opens on December’s one-and-only show: Handel’s Fertle Christmas-Caroling Miraculously Steamrolling Nutcracker on 34th Street. We had all better like it because every theater in town will be performing it, just as they have for what seems like the past 200 years.
The Alley Theatre’s annual A Christmas Carol can now legally drink, at 21 years old. The Houston Ballet has served up its "Nutcracker" for 37 years. The Houston Symphony first performed "Handel’s Messiah Christmas Eve 1836" on the banks of Buffalo Bayou for a select audience of the Allen brothers, Ima Hogg and William Marsh Rice. OK, I might have made up that last date, but the symphony has been performing Messiah every Christmas for a mere six decades.
As a lover of Houston’s performing arts, I feel I’m being punished every December. There’s nowhere to run from the same holiday shows. Then I feel guilty for being such a Scrooge. I know I shouldn’t begrudge our arts institutes their bread-and-butter. The costumes are made, the sets designed sometime during the Carter administration and all the artists already know their lines, steps, and notes. This traditional, but moldy, holiday cheer gets all those once-a-year patrons from Sugar Land and The Woodlands onto the Theatre District streets, or at least into the parking garages.
When I was eight years old, I, too, wore a red velvet dress to the "Nutcracker" and dreamed of being the Sugar Plum Fairy. As an adult, I realize I don’t even know what a sugar plum is, and why is there a fairy associated with it? Does she subsist entirely on sugar plums? Did she lead an army of sugar plums to conquer the Kingdom of Sweets? Is the Land of Snow next in her maniacal quest for power? Now that I think about it, maybe I should have never given up those aspirations to become the Sugar Plum Fairy.
Sitting across the street at the Alley, my Grinch-mind ponders if eating his fill of Christmas goose is really going to save Tiny Tim. The boy is tiny, malnourished, appears to suffer from some sort of upper-respiratory disease and lives in Victorian London. If the coal-ash air doesn’t get him, the raw sewage in the streets probably will.
I’ll give the companies credit for occasionally attempting some change. Years ago the Houston Ballet began a new tradition of ending the "Nutcracker" run with one last show, "The Nutty Nutcracker." The first Nutty year, they ran over Clara with a sleigh and the productions got progressively more deranged with each season. I don’t know why they ended, but I’d love to see Tchaikovsky’s “Dance of the Ice Machine Slime” one more time.
The Alley has also staged different adaptations of A Christmas Carol. Recently, they’ve cut much of the actual caroling from the show and added glow-in-the-dark dancing ghosts, one with an ax in her back and another with a guillotine blade through his neck. It brings some much needed life, or in this case, death, to the show. The added benefit is that the screams of the terrified six-year-olds in the audience drown out their parents’ ringing cell phones.
For all my “Bah humbugs!” there are two holiday shows I am looking forward to this season. Stages brings back British Panto. Though the genre stays the same, the story, hopefully, changes every year. (This year it's Panto Sleeping Beauty.) Back at the Alley, Todd Waite begins his second year as Crumpet, the Macy’s elf, in David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries. It's my idea of the perfect Christmas show. It lasts only an hour, surrounds its heartwarming center with a yummy, cynical shell, and Waite has the funniest run in town.
I love it now, but if they’re still doing the play in 2019, I’m going to unleash my Sugar Plum Army onto the Theatre District, and we’ll run over Crumpet with a sleigh.