Capsule Reviews

Dallas Christmas Festival Everything about Prestonwood Baptist Church and its Dallas Christmas Festival is big and broad, from the cast (more than 1,000) and running time (three hours-plus) to the humor. Being all things to all people, as the Apostle Paul advised, Prestonwood divides the show into distinct parts: a Christmas revue with dancing gingerbread men, rock-and-roll reindeer and elves rappelling from the ceiling--followed by a lengthy mass-choir concert, interesting only if you dig mass choirs. Part 2 is a musical life of Jesus--from birth, to his miracles, death and resurrection. It's told, in part, through the eyes of Peter (Chris Machen, a Christian songwriter and longtime Prestonwood member), who fell into despair after the crucifixion when he realized he'd denied Jesus three times. The device would be more effective if Machen were a better actor; his powerful singing, clearly, got him the part. A few bad wigs aside, though, Part 2 is compelling stuff, with the enormous cast--and a small herd of live animals--somehow capturing all the roiling drama that surrounded Jesus in the final three years of his life. Young kids will find it captivating, too, if they have the stamina for a long show. Costumes, sound and lighting were all exceptional, with just a couple of microphone glitches on opening night. Through December 12 at Prestonwood Baptist Church, 6801 W. Park Blvd., Plano, 972-820-5040 or www.dallaschristmasfestival.org. (Julie Lyons)

The Gift of the Magi Feeling a little anemic Christmas spiritwise? This production by the Classical Acting Company is just the tonic for the holiday-weary. Dallas actor-writer Lee Trull blends two O. Henry stories--Magi and Compliments of the Season--into a seamless one-act that loses not a morsel of the writer's trademark irony and wit. It's the classic tale of an unexpected Christmas miracle. Jim (Steven Walters) and Della (Elise Reynard) are newlyweds circa 1907, living in a sparsely furnished walk-up in Lower Manhattan, "married to each other, married to poverty." Jim, a writer, regales the delicate Della with fanciful stories, from the baseball player he met at a busy lunch counter to the wild and woolly adventures of three down-and-outers who find a kid's lost doll and try to cash in on a $100 reward. Rich in love, Jim and Della are poor in finances, down to their last few pennies. No gifts, they promise. But they can't help themselves. Each thinks of the perfect present the other will love. But what must they sacrifice to buy them? No spoilers here, in case you've forgotten O. Henry's famous tragicomic twist at the end of the story. But even if you know it, you'll get swept into the simple elegance of this beautifully acted and precisely staged production (directed by Matthew Gray). When Walters sweeps Reynard into his arms for a slow waltz across the floor to the warm notes of a far-off cello, it's as lovely a moment in the theater as we've witnessed all year. Shows this good really do feel like a gift. Through December 19 at the Arena Theater, Fannin Hall, Richland College, 12800 Abrams Road, 214-505-1655. (Elaine Liner)

Nuestra Pastorela The best translation of nuestra pastorela might be "our own Nativity play," but that does nothing to describe the madcap zaniness Chicano troupe Cara Mia's nine actors--many of them non-professionals--have injected into the traditional story of Christ's birth. Before the play really begins, two of the actors, pretending to be audience members, argue with each other loudly in Spanglish up on the stage (where the rest of the audience is seated, to echo the intimate humility of the typical Mexican pastorela). After donning bright red clown noses, the two become gibberish-spouting shepherd-clowns joined by another clown (à la Roberto Benigni, not Bozo), three devils, the angel Gabriel and eventually Jose and Maria. The chief devil has decided that baby Jesus is "trying to get our job"; after all, if he has the ability to cleanse humans of their sins, what work is left for devils? So he and his diablo colleagues must intervene in the shepherds' journey to Bethlehem by tempting them with all seven of the deadly sins. There are points at which the tomfoolery drags on too long to maintain its burst of biting humor, but the enthusiasm of the cast is infectious and their aptitude for the neglected art of physical comedy--so much harder to carry off than it seems--is impressive and endearing. Through December 19 at the Latino Cultural Center, 2600 Live Oak St., 214-946-9499. (Claiborne Smith)

The Santaland Diaries This is the fourth year Dallas actor Nye Cooper has channeled the Spirit of Christmas Gay in David Sedaris' minty, flinty one-man show about a New York newcomer hired as a lowly Santa's helper at Macy's Herald Square. With fresh direction by WaterTower Theatre's Terry Martin and a spiffy new set by Clare Floyd Devries, it feels like a brand-new show. Cooper, as always, can generate laughs just with the strategic arching of one black eyebrow. But now he's comfortable enough with the audience to take his time telling the story of the cynical elf-for-hire who finds himself caught up in the strange magic of life inside Santa's "magic tree." In short chapters, we follow "Crumpet" through elf training, his first long days on the job (growing so bored, he tells shoppers to "look into the magic window and see...Cher"), his crush on fellow elf Snowball, the psychic wounds of being shrieked at by harried parents and the final run-up to the big day when at last he can shed his velvet knickers and pointy hat. Cooper's performance catches all of Sedaris' wry timing (the author first read this material as a series of essays on National Public Radio), but he brings his own wry touches to the part. He makes one delicious Crumpet. Through December 23 at the Stone Cottage, Addison Theatre Centre, 15650 Addison Road, Addison, 214-450-6232. (E.L.)

Snow White The British call the kind of production under way at the Trinity River Arts Center a "panto," which means that the audience should hiss and boo when Queen Isawicked (Allyn Carrell) tromps onstage and blithely accept that Prince Gerald, who saves Snow White (Emmy Gladney) by kissing her, is played by a woman (Lauren N. Goode). But since the opening number is a little rap that goes "I'm gonna tell ya a little story/'Bout a girl named Snow," audience members get their bearings early on in this distinctly non-Disneyfied Snow White. Jacque Mellor's script, and the actors performing it, capture the verve and irreverence of childhood imagination where many children's plays stodgily posit the wee tots as little adults, with adult expectations. The producers haven't meddled with Snow White's story so much as they've enlivened it: She must overcome Queen Isawicked, her vengeful stepmother, by surviving a poisoned apple as well as the hapless Hunter Bob (Kevin M. Connolly), who knows he is "not the brightest candle in the window." And The Mirror (Robert Silva) still knows who's the fairest of them all, but in Theatre Britain's Snow White, he's mordant and a little sassy, a thoughtful nod at pleasing the adults attending this children's show. Through December 19 at the Trinity River Arts Center, 2600 N. Stemmons Freeway, #180, 972-490-4202. (C.S.)

The Underpants Two years ago, Steve Martin adapted Carl Sternheim's 1911 satire of stolid German bourgeois morality, Die Hose, by Americanizing the original playwright's language and by extending the play's gags to his own daffy uses. The result is like an hour-and-a-half American sitcom that just happens to be set in Dusseldorf in 1910. It's springtime, so when young and beautiful Louise Maske's (Amy Storemski) panties inexplicably fall to her ankles one day at the train station, everyone in town happens to be out enjoying the weather--and Louise's underpants. That happens to you all the time, you say? But do you have a boorish husband who refuses to have sex with you because he's measured out every last penny and decided a child would not be financially advantageous? Poor Louise is soon hounded by potential renters--a dashing but pompous poet (Mark Shum) and a sickly barber (Jon Paul Burkhart)--who profess to have non-amatory reasons for wanting to live under the same roof as Louise. The Underpants' exaggerated comic brio (and mile-a-minute plotting) is a tough beast for actors to nail down. Plano Repertory's cast pulls off more than a few genuinely laugh-out-loud moments but also relies on hyperbolic gestures where more inventive physical comedy would have carried the mood. Through December 19 at the Courtyard Theatre in Plano, 1509 H Ave., 972-422-7460. (C.S.)

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