Even before Christmas merchandise begins selling -- now on the day after Halloween -- theatres all over the country gear up for their Holiday shows. Although most offer adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, more recent plays are carving their way into the Christmas theatre tradition. Here's a round-up:
For a simple Carol, Patrick Stewart, the chrome-pated captain of the Next Generation Enterprise, originally brought his flavorful reading of the Dickens novella to Broadway in 1991 The show had two reprises on the Great White Way, and this year plays at Hollywood's Doolittle Theatre, Dec. 3-22.
The icing-on-the-ivy version of the story originally appeared in 1994 when Mike Ockrent, Lynn Ahrens and Alan Menken created their lavish, $13 million musical Christmas Carol that filled Madison Square Garden's Paramount Theatre with match-sellers, fake snow and a flying Scrooge. After a reprise in 1995, the show returns to the same space, now called The Theatre at Madison Square Garden, in 1996 beginning Nov. 22, this time with Ben Vereen as the Ghost Of Xmas Present and Tony Randall as Scrooge, the grumpy miser turned blissful philanthropist.
Traditional mountings of A Christmas Carol still abound, be they Missouri Rep's 16th annual production of the story (adapted by Barbara Field), a new adaptation to mark the 20th go-`round for Minnesota's Guthrie Theatre, a children's musical theatre version for NY's Westbury Music Fair, Indiana Rep's first mounting of the show since 1984, or musical versions for North Shore Music Theatre in Massachusetts, Pittsburgh's Civic Light Opera and Summit, Illinois' Candlelight Dinner Playhouse.
Chicago's Goodman Theatre will offer its 19th consecutive A Christmas Carol, starring local fave Tom Mula for the third year in a row as Ebenezer the money-squeezer. Dallas Theatre Center's production will star La Bete's Tom McGowan; Rhode Island's Trinity Rep will celebrate their twentieth Carol with "Fezziwig's Party," a feast for the entire family, on Dec. 8 ; San Diego beats Trinity by one as they offer their 21st A Christmas Carol,with original music by Steve Gunderson; San Francisco's American Conservatory Theatre brings back its 1976 adaptation for the first time since 1988. Theatregoers spending the holidays in Omaha, NB, will no doubt flock to the 21st year of the Omaha Community Playhouse A Christmas Carol -- which, according to one Playbill On-Line reader, has boasted the same Ebenezer Scrooge for all 21 years -- Dick Boyd, a retired schoolteacher from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Children who started in adolescent parts years ago have even stayed with the production and grown into adult roles.
Just as for every "Ave Maria" there's a "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer," for every Dickensian Carol there's twisted A Tuna Christmas. That comedy, about the demented denizens of a non-existant hick town in Texas, plays with its original two-man cast -- Jaston Williams and Joe Sears -- at the Marines Memorial Theatre in San Francisco. Other casts will take on the farce at Charlotte Rep, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Memphis' Playhouse On The Square, and the BoarsHead Michigan Public Theatre.
On the other end of the spectrum is Holiday Memories, adapted by Russell Vanderbroucke from Truman Capote's short stories, "The Thanksgiving Visitor" and "A Christmas Memory." Both stories take place in 1930's rural Alabama. "Visitor" shows what happens when Capote's cousin invites the school bully home for Thanksgiving dinner. "Memory" explores Buddy's relationship with his spinster cousin and the special world they inhabit together.
Raucous and poetic, warts-`n'-all yet empathic, Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas In Wales is also becoming standard holiday fare. Adapted for the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble by Jeremy Brooks and Adrian Mitchell, Thomas' Wales catches the poet through the gauze of memory-- remembering a youth when "the snow was deeper, the presents were piled higher, the family was a little wackier, and the end of the holiday brought a peace unlike any other day of the year."
Other works on their way to becoming Christmas theatre perennials are Dan Sullivan's farce, Inspecting Carol and Tom Dudzick's Greetings. The former, written by the outgoing artistic director of Seattle Rep, follows the chaos when an amateur actor, mistaken for a quality control inspector for the NEA, gets cast in a midwestern theatre's production of A Christmas Carol. The latter play is more sombre, as the son of religious Catholics brings his atheist girlfriend to meet his mom and dad and retarded brother.
Californians can catch Inspecting Carol, which has played at Steppenwolf and Laguna Playhouses, as well as Seattle Repertory, in a production by Singular Productions, Inc. at Culver City's Ivy Substation through Dec. 14.
Greetings will play at Fresno's Theatre Three, as well as Orlando's Theatre Downtown and PA's Bristol Riverside Theatre. That production will donate 20 percent of single ticket sales to the "Give-A Christmas" fund. (Speaking of Seattle, the Group Theatre there is offering the Ruben Sierra and Colleen Carpenter-Simmons piece, Voices Of Christmas, Nov. 30-Dec. 28).
Then there are the family-geared holiday revues, such as Christmas Cavalcade at Sausalito's Mason Street Theatre (Nov. 29-Dec. 29). Standards (Berlin's "White Christmas") and novelties ("Boogie Woogie Santa Claus") comprise that show, which starts as a 1940's radio format and segues into a 1950's TV-style variety show.
Somewhat more traditional is a Cape May Scrooge, offered by Cape May Stage in New Jersey. This version, based on the "fact" that [Dickens'] tale actually took place in Cape May, features a miser named "Emlen" Scrooge. Those shocked by such rampant tinkering will no doubt be assuaged by the production's soothing seasonal music. Also in New Jersey, the George Street Playhouse offers Sing A Christmas Song, with music by Garry Sherman, book and lyrics by Peter Udell (Nov. 30-Dec. 28).
Surprisingly, Houston's ecumenically named A.D. Players won't do a standard, reverent A Christmas Carol, but an "original Christmas comedy musical," titled Christmas Party Of One. Here's the blurb: "Three astrologers go in search of the true King, two women set up a `Picture Yourself With Jesus' photo booth in the mall to thwart shoppers planning to see Santa, a dancing traveling salesman convinces Joseph to marry Mary, someone is stealing all the artifices of Christmas, and a married couple comes face to face with an angel. Sounds more like an issue of the National Enquirer than a Christmas musical..."
Director Don Hollenbeck, Jr. has staged the show to approximate the experience of a TV sitcom, with audience members "in charge of, or fighting over, the remote control." The idea is to appeal to a generation of TV viewers by showing small snippets of six different plot lines, so fast paced, "if you were to leave the theatre and came back five or ten minutes later, you probably wouldn't know what was going on." Still, for all its zaniness, Ken Bailey (book/lyrics) and Gerry Poland (music) created the show to be "about hope and how people deal with it." Christmas Party Of One runs Nov. 29-Dec. 29.
Though given the curmudgeonly title Bah! Humbug!, a new musical adaptation of "Christmas Carol" at Repertory Theatre of St. Louis will actually be a fairly traditional retelling, albeit updated to more modern times. The book and score are by Jack S. Herrick, a founding member of the Red Clay Ramblers country/folk ensemble (the guys who back Bill Irwin and David Shiner on Full Moon). The cast includes Eric J. Conners, Gretchen Gamble, Joel Gray and Laurie McConnell. (Those doing a double-take will do well to remember that Joel Gray is not to be confused with the other guy, who spells his last name with an "e.") Catch Bah! Humbug Dec. 14-23.
A grimacing child thrusting a candy cane out before him is the logo for Tales From The Christmas Wars - A Holiday Fortification, staged by Off-Broadway's Invisible Theatre company. An evening of stories and songs, Tales will feature pieces by Grace Paley and Damon Runyan, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's "Christ Climbed Down:" "Christ climbed down from His bare Tree this year and ran away..." Tales<?I> runs at Robert's Restaurant on 10th Ave and 50th St. in Manhattan, Dec. 7-15.
Now, when it comes to pure animal entertainment, it's probably hard to top "Rat Dog And Princess Toad's Holiday Musicale Revue Extravaganza Magnifique!," featuring characters of past and present discovering the true meaning of the holidays. This show -- an appropriate choice for the Illinois playhouse called "Pheasant Run" (Nov. 23-Dec. 21) -- presents a world where a dog can talk, animals can sing carols, and, in a more verite' approach, a visit from Santa.
Little ones in Virginia might want to drink from The Christmas Cup, at Roanoke's Mill Mountain Theatre (Nov. 5-24). The play, based on Nancy Ruth Patterson's children's book and adapted by Mill Mountain artistic director Jere Lee Hodgin, shows a little girl learning the true meaning of Christmas from her grandmother.
In the same gentle vein we find Alias Santa Claus, a play with original music by Chris DeCarlo and Evelyn Rudie of the Santa Monica Playhouse. Nick, a jolly, bearded stranger, visits the Matthews family on a cold night in the late 1800's. "The Little-House-On-The-Prairie"-type family learns some very important lessons from old Nick, who in turn discovers a reason for shlepping on one more year. Songs include "Leave A Light In The Window For Santa" and "It's Not What You Have, But What You Do With What You Do Have."
Another "holiday musical comedy fantasy for the entire family" can be found in Arizona at the Gaslight Theatre (Nov. 7-Jan. 4, 1997). Angel On My Shoulder, subtitled "Winging In The Holidays," has the startlingly original premise of a small town finding its holiday spirit, a father reuniting with his family, and a guardian angel finally getting his wings.
Meanwhile, Summit, Illinois' Candlelight Dinner Playhouse will bring audiences A Wonderful Life, the Sheldon Harnick and Joe Raposo musical based on Frank Capra's legendary film about a small town finding its holiday spirit, a father reuniting with his family, and a guardian angel finally -- well, you get the idea.
Charm and good will are also the keys to Mark St. Germain and Randy Courts' musicalization of O. Henry's The Gifts Of The Magi, opening Nov. 29 at the Cleveland Play House. Artistic director Peter Hackett directs the piece, which is set in turn-of-the-century New York. The musical stitches together two O. Henry tales, "Magi," about the gift-giving Dillinghams, and "The Cop And The Anthem," about a hobo whose attempts at getting thrown into a warm jail cell for the night are foiled by the Christmas spirit of his victims.
The sachet and crystal crowd might also gravitate towards Temple Theatre Company's Appalachian Christmas, which shows a family reuniting in the North Carolina mountains during Xmastime. Traditional baroque carols set to old-time music and "sacred harp" classics will fill the air. Now in its second year at the Sanford, NC Theatre, Appalachian Christmas will run (Dec. 6-22) and then move on to play two venues in Georgia.
A big hit in Chicago last season, The Christmas Schooner returns to Bailiwick Repertory, this time on the mainstage. John Reeger and Julie Shannon's holiday musical won an After Dark Award for Best New Work and tells the true story of German and Swiss immigrants who braved the icy waters of Lake Michigan to bring tannenbaums to 19th-Century Chicago. Contibuting to the play's success, director David Zak explains, "Last year, after my first Schooner rehearsal my mother fell down the steps of the home I grew up in. The ten days that I spent shuttling from rehearsal to my mother's hospital room created a unique bond among myself, the cast and the play."
Shows less directly associated with Christmas, yet still tenuously connected to the seasonal spirit also abound. Vancouver's Arts Theatre Club will offer Alice: A Play With Music, which adapts Lewis Carroll's "Alice In Wonderland." Candlelight Dinner Playhouse and Forum Theatre of Illinois will offer the very unglad tidings of Alan Ayckbourn's Season's Greetings. When friends and relatives gather for the holidays, petty squabbles, an accidental shooting, a puppet show and a midnight love scene are just some of the mayhem that ensues. Chicago veteran Hollis Resnick stars, Dec. 4-Feb. 23, 1997.
Philadelphia's Walnut Street Theatre will offer the poignancy and pageantry of Camelot, Lerner & Loewe's musical about the once and future king, Arthur. A new production directed by Charles Abbott, this Camelot stars James Brennan (Me And My Girl, Crazy For You), Patricia Ben Peterson and Nat Chandler, and runs to Jan. 5, 1997.
Though Walnut Street communications manager Maria Sticco told Playbill On-Line that her theatre doesn't choose plays with holiday themes, Camelot makes sense at this time because it's a family entertainment. "It's not specifically about the holidays, but Christmas is very much about tradition, and this is a traditional story, and always popular."
Holiday theatregoers truly yearning for the spiritual experience of the holidays need look no further than Westbury Music Fair (NY), where the children's theatre division will present A Chipmunk Christmas (Dec. 8 only). Yes, Alvin, Simon and Theodore, recording artists responsible for The Chipmunk Song and other holiday novelties, will be on hand, "posing for a sleigh ride photo shoot, visiting with Santa at the Mall, and preparing for a Christmas Eve concert." Other Westbury holiday includes a special Kenny Rogers Xmas show (featuring songs from his album, "The Gift") and Come Home To Ireland For Christmas, featuring the stars of Jurys Irish Cabaret in Dublin.
Thematically akin to the Jodie Foster Thanksgiving film, "Home For The Holidays," is Eugene Stickland's Some Assembly Required. Stickland's dark comedy, the hit of Alberta Theatre Projects' PlayRites `94 Festival, shows children returning to the nest one by one. Gordon, the youngest, makes the basement his own private bunker. Walter, the eldest, turned down the family barbed wire business to sell insurance. Daughter Stacy is having a bad hair LIFE. "Can this nuclear family avoid meltdown and reclaim their Christmas spirit?" asks the press release. Audiences will see when the show plays at ATP Nov. 17-Dec. 21.
Los Angelenos can also take a walk on the weird side with The Eight, a comic monologue by Jeff Goode. "The sleigh ride is over," reads the promo. "As yet another Christmas run approaches, allegations of sexual misconduct on the part of the Jolly Old Elf himself have surfaced. `The Eight,' Santa's elite team of flying reindeer, find themselves divided. Do they stand by one of their own and walk out on `the fat boy?' Or do they rally `round the Pole?"
Which brings us to Jingle Balls, presented by L.A.'s Company Of Angels (Dec. 6-Jan. 4, 1997). A holiday comedy of vignettes "aimed to tickle the Scrooge within your soul," Jingle Balls offers nutty alternatives to last-minute shopping, holiday overeating and banal conversation. Derived from improvisation by the ensemble (who previously brought California audiences the long-running hit, Improv Schmimprov), the whole Jingle Balls package is directed by Ezra Weisz.
These are just a sampling of the traditional and untraditional, rampant and irreverent, mellow and miraculous shows offered around the country this holiday season. For more information on specific productions, please refer to the Theatre Listings on Playbill On-Line.
-- By David Lefkowitz