Stage adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol are to American theatre groups what "The Nutcracker" is to dance companies. Chances are, no matter where you live at this time of year, you can probably see a the word "Scrooge" on a marquee from your front door.
Holiday-oriented productions are becoming cash-cows for theatre companies, offering theatregoers (especially families) a chance to bask in some seasonal cheer in a live theatre.
In Manhattan, there's the now-perennial Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden, this year featuring two scrooges: Hal Linden and Roddy MacDowall. Previous meanies in this opulent musical have included Tony Randall and Walter Charles. Alan Menken & Lynn Ahrens' musical runs at MSG to Jan. 4, 1998. As a special promotion, for each adult ticket purchased for all performances between Dec. 31-Jan. 1, a child gets in free.
Also bringing the Christmas spirit to NYC are a Melting Pot Theatre production of Harry Chapin's Cotton Patch Gospel Off-Broadway, and Oasis Theatre offering the Mark St. Germain/Randy Courts musical, The Gifts Of The Magi, not to mention the world-famous Radio City Christmas Spectacular. The long-running Late Nite Catechism features Maripat Donovan discussing the Saints and other germane religious topics, while an all-male Brazilian company of Nunsense recently brought its campiness to Dan Goggins' zany musical at the Theatre at St. Clements.
Two one-acts by Bob Ost, The Body Shop and Not On Christmas Eve, comprise In The Spirit at Off-Off-Broadway's Westside Repertory Theatre. Body is a musical about angels selling bodies to souls; Eve shows a woman who plans to dump her boyfriend on December 24 -- only to get caught up in his family's eccentricities. In a more bawdy and irreverent vein comes Joe Doyle's "sequel" to A Christmas Carol, The Christmas Carol Conspiracy: Scrooge's Revenge. This comedy asks what happens when Scrooge discovers that "somebody has slipped something into his wine on Christmas Eve."
Outside New York, the Christmas Carols are as numerous as snowflakes. Let us count the Cratchits:
* Portland Stage Company (ME): Composer/director Peter John Still's version makes a return visit, again featuring Kirk Jackson as the redoubtable, reformable miser.
* A Contemporary Theatre (Seattle, WA): It's 22 years now and counting for ACT's Carol, penned by founder Gregory A. Falls. As with the MSG Carol, this year's production alternates Scrooges.
* Trinity Repertory (Providence, RI): Another double-cast production, this one features Timothy Crowe and a female Scrooge, Anne Scurria. Directed by Amanda Dehnert, this Carol uses the Adrian Hall/Richard Cumming text.
* American Stage Festival (NH): Adapted by Troy Siebels, this mounting mixes traditional tunes like "Joy To The World" and "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" with the Dickens story.
* Virginia Stage Company (Norfolk, VA): Promising "a dazzling display of technical wizardry," director Charlie Hensley hopes to offer "a fascinating production of this great ghost story."
* Alley Theatre (Houston, TX): The story's supernatural elements are even more overt in Michael Wilson's adaptation, which is officially subtitled "A Ghost Story Of Christmas." This one has "a massive, multi-level set and eerie, ghostly apparation dancers."
* Dallas Theatre Center (TX): Gerald Freeman's adaptation returns for its 14th season, directed by Raphael Parry and "filled with special effects."
* Blumenthal Center (Charlotte, NC): Curt Wollan directs this touring adaptation by award-winning playwright, Buffy Sedlacheck.
* Civic Light Opera Company (Pittsburgh, PA): It's the second Carol for Bingo O'Malley as Scrooge. Specially titled "A Musical Christmas Carol, the production is adapted and directed by David H. Bell.
* McCarter Theatre (Princeton, NJ): The one and only Everett Quinton, of NYC's Ridiculous Theatrical troupe, makes his McCarter debut as the Ghost of Jacob Marley. Padraic Lillis remounts this adaptation, which was originally directed seven years ago by Scott Ellis (Steel Pier).
* San Diego Repertory (CA): An "all-new" Carol is promised for this 22nd annual production, this one featuring Celtic music composed by Jonathan Sacks.
* Indiana Repertory (IN): Frank Raiter was supposed to be playing Scrooge this year, but he's now in the extended engagement of Off-Broadway's Defying Gravity. Michael Rudko takes over in this production, staged by Scott Wentworth.
* Actors Theatre Of Louisville (KY): Like ACT and San Diego Rep, this is year #22 for ATL. This all-new adaptation is by Marcia Dixcy Jory and artistic director, Jon Jory.
* Guthrie Theatre (Minneapolis, MN): The one and only John Gielgud has lent his voice for the narration of this production. According to an Associated Press report, an official from the Minneapolis theatre flew to London to tape Gielgud's recitation. "His voice will marry beautifully with those of the actors on stage and is a perfect fit with the language of Charles Dickens," said artistic director Joe Dowling. Spokesperson Kemp Powers told Playbill On-Line, "We've done Christmas Carol for over 20 years. For a number of years, we had the narrator be someone portraying Dickens at the dinner table with his family. Last season we had various company members narrate throughout the story."
* American Conservatory Theatre (San Francisco, CA): Not to be confused with Seattle's ACT, this ACT has its own Carol, adapted by Laird Williamson and Dennis Powers and directed by Candace Barrett. Several performances will be followed by "Christmas Caroling Parties," featuring "keepsakes, face-painting, refreshments and carolers."
* Sacramento Theatre Company (CA): Local playwright Richard Hellesen and composer David deBerry collaborated on this adaptation, now in its tenth season at STC.
* Goodman Theatre (Chicago, IL): The 20th anniversary mounting of Tom Creamer's version will offer such sideline events as "A Cratchit family reunion, a coloring contest, lobby performances by St. John's Choir, and Mexican tin ornament making." Tom Mula stars (apparently in his valedictory); Henry Godinez directs. In tribute to the Goodman milestone, Mayor Richard M. Daley declared Nov. 16 "Christmas Carol Day" in Chicago.
* Portland Stage Company (ME): Tony-nominated lighting designer Christopher Akerlind lends his talents to this adaptation.
* Walnut Theatre (Philadelphia, PA): From a Scrooge to a Leach. In this one-man adaptation, William Leach plays all the parts in Dickens' story, which is directed by Leslie Reidel at the theatre's Studio 3.
* Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble (Bloomsburg, PA): Gerald Stropnicky directs this musical adaptation.
* Actors' Playhouse Theatre For Young Audiences (Coral Gables, FL): Nina & Earl Maulding have specially adapted the story for kids.
* Syracuse Stage (NY): Charles Karchmer directs this adaptation by Syracuse University professor Geraldine Clark. Drew Eshelman, a Les Miz Thenardier, plays Scrooge.
* Ritz Theatre (Oaklyn, NJ): This one's a "Puttin' On The Ritz" childrens musical called Scrooge, which features Emmy-winning TV children's show host, Ritzy the Wolf as the title character.
What??? You say you're tired of Dickens? Read on:
The Dylan Thomas classic, A Child's Christmas In Wales. Dec. 19-28, NJ's 12 Miles West Theatre Company offers this Christmas memory, about a Swansea yuletide, circa 1920. Live music, hot mulled cider and other treats are offered along with the show.
Just as beloved as Thomas' stories is Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory, which comes to the Zachary Scott Center in Austin, TX. Set in Depression-era Alabama, the drama is directed by Joe York (Dec. 5-28). Also at the Zach will be the big-haired, girl-group revue, Rockin' Christmas Party, featuring Jacqui Cross and Andra Mitrovich, who played Janis Joplin in the Zach's recent, Love, Janis.
Chicago denizens suffering a less-than-merry time might want to visit Zeitgeist Theatre's holiday show, Roasting Chestnuts. This irreverent piece has Gina Oswald, 1/4 of the "grossly-talented" Oswald Quintuplets trying to stage a Christmas show. Everything goes wrong, of course, though audiences do get to sample the jazzy Von Zeitgeist Family Singers; a molesting Santa Claus who lures patrons onto his lap for a little Christmas cheer; a "Wonderful Life" style subplot in which one character learns what life would be like if he hadn't been born gay; and, of course, improv improv improv. The Zeitgeist troupe is also responsible for the open run of the interactive Flanagan's Wake, an evening of drunken Irish improv revelry centered around a funeral.
How about a musical based on one of the most famous newspaper editorials in history? VA's Mill Mountain Theatre offers (Dec. 3-28) Yes, Virginia, There Is A Santa Claus, a musical by David Kirshenbaum and Myles McDonnell. The show commemorates the 100th anniversary of a young girl's letter to the New York Sun and its editor's kindly response.
Ah, "The Nutcracker." Take away Tchaikovsky's music and you still have -- a charming holiday fantasy, courtesy of writings by E.T.A. Hoffmann and an adaptation by David Hammond. Here, a family travel to the mouse underworld to save a noble soldier bewitched by the evil Queen Mouserinks. The Nutcracker: A Play plays at NC's PlayMakers Repertory Company through Dec. 21.
From Sausalito CA's Antenna Theatre and artistic director Chris Hardman, Star*Light is a modernist, satirical take on A Christmas Carol -- for kids. Star*Light, takes place in an urban factory where artificial light is generated constantly to keep productivity and profits at a maximum. The CEO's murky world of venture capital gets a jolt during a winter storm black-out. Adding to the modern feel is Antenna Theatre's technique of using a pre-recorded soundscape to which the audience listens via headsets (dubbed "walkmanology").
For some Sacramento satire, there's the B Street Theatre's And To All A Good Night, a world premiere comedy by Buck Busfield. Two burglars pose as Santa Claus and break into the house of a self-described "good man." During Christmas week (Dec. 22-27), the B Street will also offer the family show, Caribbean Folktales With A Twist Of St. Nick, staged by the professional touring Fantasy Theatre. Stories reenacted include "The Poor Man Of Trinidad," "Atariba & Niguayona" and an adaptation of the Harry Belafonte tune, "Matilda."
At Dallas Children's Theatre, kids can enjoy the Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts and its staging of Not A Creature Was Stirring. This holiday piece utilizes marionettes, rod puppets, hand puppets and even humans, as it tells of a mouse family on Christmas Eve.
Temple Theatre Company, of Sanford, NC, will miss secular tunes and spiritual hymns in The Best Of Broadway Christmas, billed as "a holiday journey down the Great White Way."
Meanwhile, Seattle, WA's Group Theatre has its own multi-cultural holiday concert, Voices Of Christmas, Nov. 26-Dec. 27. Part of the show will be an urban Nativity that begs the question: "What if Jesus had a baby sister?" Voices, with a script by Drew Emery, also has segments devoted to Chanukah and Kwanzaa.
In Alaska, Perseverance Theatre offers the oratorio, King Island Christmas, by playwright Deborah Baley Brevoort and composer David Friedman. It's the story of King Islanders who try to save a priest stranded aboard the North Star Freighter. Brevoort's best-known work is the possibly-New York-bound, Coyote Goes Salmon Fishing.
A.D. Players (of Houston, TX) recently brought the biblical John: His Story to Off-Broadway, but their latest is definitely kookier. It's O, Little Town Of Bagels, Teacakes And Hamburger Buns, a "Christmas comedy with a romantic twist." Penned in 1984 by artistic director Jeannette Clift George, OLTOBTAHB has become a holiday favorite, now returning for its third mounting. Set in Palestine, Texas, OLTOBTAHB looks at regulars and visitors in a small-town hotel cafe.
Christmas gets a more hectic view at the Samuel Beckett Theatre on NY's Theatre Row, thanks to Christine Soderman's new comedy, Holiday In New York. A rural American family visiting relatives in Manhattan experience culture shock when faced with the chaos of New York City.
At the Unicorn Theatre in Kansas City, MO, pop culture meets yuletide cheer in Larry Larson & Levi Lee's The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge, Nov. 25-Dec. 28.
If your taste runs to more cynical entertainments, you might have caught the recent NY look at what it means to be a lesbian at Christmastime, The I'm Christmas Special, Or, It Came Upon A Midnight Queer. Madeleine Olnek's "ambi-denominational, holiday extravaganza" featured such guest stars as Carmelita Tropicana, Holly Hughes and Deb Margolin. Another recent downtown bit of holiday goofiness came courtesy of the "Alien Comic's Christmas Spectacular" at the La MaMa Club. That revue featured such performers as Amy ("Talent Family") Sedaris and the Duelling Bankheads.
For kids seeking their own bit of yuletide zaniness, there's the return (to St. Charles IL's Pheasant Run Theatre) of the popular, "Rat Dog & Princess Toad." This time the theme is "It's A Wonderful Life," which asks the question, what would life be like if Princess Toad had never been born? Find out Nov. 30-Dec. 21.
Running to Dec. 28 at San Diego CA's Sledgehammer Theatre is David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries, the West Coast premiere of this autobiographical look at the tortures of being a MACY's Christmas elf.
Happy holidays! -- oh, and for a more Hannukah-oriented look at the holiday season, check out the Playbill On-Line news story, "Logan's Look At Leopold & Loeb Continues NY Jewish Theatre Upsurge."
-- By David Lefkowitz