Houston Matters

How Houston performing arts groups keep annual holiday shows fresh and interesting — without angering the faithful

Stanton Welch of Houston Ballet and Rob Melrose of The Alley Theatre explain how their productions of “The Nutcracker” and “A Christmas Carol” have changed over the years and what these annual traditions mean for Houston.

The cast of "A Christmas Carol" on stage at The Alley Theatre.
The cast of “A Christmas Carol” on stage at The Alley Theatre.

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For years now at this time of year, audiences flock to Houston performing arts venues to see performances of holiday staples, like Houston Ballet’s production of The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol at The Alley Theatre.

Having staged those shows for so many years – and so many times each year – how do performing arts organizations keep those productions fresh and interesting for audiences while also staying true to the beloved source materials audiences hold dear?

In the audio above, Houston Matters producer Joshua Zinn talks it over with two people who have plenty of firsthand experience with just that. Stanton Welch is the artistic director for Houston Ballet, and Rob Melrose is the artistic director for The Alley Theatre.

The Ballet has been performing The Nutcracker since the organization’s inception, while the current version was first produced in 2016. And The Alley has been staging a version of A Christmas Carol since 1989, while this is only the second year for its current, more traditional adaptation.

Eric Best as Fritz in the 2022 production of Stanton Welch's adaptation of "The Nutcracker."
Eric Best as Fritz in the 2022 production of Stanton Welch's adaptation of “The Nutcracker.”

Natural Evolution

One way these productions stay fresh and interesting happens naturally. The world of dance has evolved over the years. Welch said 30 years ago there were only two or three men in a dance company who could perform certain technically challenging parts. Now, Houston Ballet has 30 or 40 men capable of that.

“So, dance itself changed,” he said. “And I think that what men did in dance, what they’re expected to do, had to rise to meet that.”

Rich and Meaty Characters

For The Alley Theatre, keeping things engaging for both the audience and for the actors themselves means making sure the dozen or so core players have rich, interesting character arcs.

“It was really important to me to make sure each track was fulfilling because these actors were going to have to play it year after year and hopefully eventually switch and get to play a new track,” Melrose said. “And some people have already switched. So, I just want to make sure every track was really rich and meaty.”

Actor David Rainey of The Alley Theatre is playing the role of Ebenezer Scrooge for the sixth year.

For example, resident actor David Rainey is playing Ebenezer Scrooge for the sixth year. But Melrose says Rainey is such a consummate actor that he fully invests himself in the performance each year, which keeps it engaging.

“He lives that journey and really invests in it…he really goes to some really emotional, beautiful places,” Melrose said. “And his performance is pretty remarkable.”

Where No One’s Gone Before

In the original novella from Charles Dickens on which A Christmas Carol is based, there are some scenes that are commonly left out of stage adaptations, such as one where Scrooge and The Ghost of Christmas Present visit some miners, a lighthouse, and a ship.

“It’s always cut from every version of Christmas Carol, and I just thought, ‘What a wonderful thing,'” Melrose said. “And we really challenged ourselves to keep those…and go to places in Christmas Carol nobody’s ever gone before.”

The Sugar Plum Fairy in Houston Ballet's production of "The Nutcracker."
The Sugar Plum Fairy in Houston Ballet’s production of “The Nutcracker.”

Balancing the Traditional with the New

Welch himself choreographed the Ballet’s current version of The Nutcracker. He said there are certain traditional elements most productions don’t dare tinker with, like the solos of the Sugar Plum Fairy and the Nutcracker Prince.

“From company to company, with the exception of little tiny tweaks, it’s the same,” he said. “So, I took that, and I used that. But everything else in Nutcracker is pretty up for taking.”

The Whole Rainbow of Houston

Regardless of how traditional and how experimental a particular production is, these specific shows are important to the Houston arts scenes from multiple perspectives.

Welch said a production of The Nutcracker supports many, many jobs and is a major revenue stream for organizations like his each year. And creating a version of the holiday classic that’s unique to Houston brings more attention to the rich arts scene in the city, something he feels is often overlooked.

“It’s wonderful to have something that is unique to Houston, and we wanted to create an event or a Nutcracker that is special to us, like Disneyland,” he said. “And that people should travel to see this version and to see the sets and the costumes move in our theater.”

Actors David Rainey and Elizabeth Bunch in "A Christmas Carol" at The Alley Theatre.
Actors David Rainey and Elizabeth Bunch in “A Christmas Carol” at The Alley Theatre.

And Melrose notes these productions are gateways for audiences to discover the performing arts.

“For most people it’s the first play they ever see — it’s certainly the first play at The Alley. It’s kind of the entryway to The Alley,” he said. “So, we always talk about ‘we have to put our very very best foot forward’ because it’s their introduction to this.”

And these performances bring in the broadest, most diverse audiences.

“It really represents the whole rainbow of Houston,” Melrose said. “One of my favorite things is to stand on the third floor and watch people filing out down our long spiral staircase and just seeing all the different people from Houston that have showed up and made this a part of their lives. And it’s kind of moving for me to watch that.”

Performances of A Christmas Carol run through Dec. 30 at The Alley Theatre, and Houston Ballet's performances of The Nutcracker run through Dec. 27.