Holiday theater roundup
Time Out Chicago's staff reviews 2009's seasonal theater offerings.
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!
American Blues Theater. Dir. Marty Higginbotham. With ensemble cast.
There’s a big cheese factor to this production, which makes us part of the live studio audience for a staged radio “broadcast” of It’s a Wonderful Life; it’s made extra gooey by audiograms from the audience and commercial breaks. So buy into it if you plan to enjoy the show. Most of the actors voice a handful of characters, but the evening’s highlight is John Mohrlein, who switches between Clarence the angel and old man Potter so quickly you find yourself in disbelief that it’s the same person. Kevin Kelly seems to channel Jimmy Stewart more than George Bailey, but on the upside, you can close your eyes and swear you’re hearing the film. —Stephanie Gladney
Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer
Hell in a Handbag Productions. By David Cerda. Dir. Derek Czaplewski. With ensemble cast.
Now in its 12th year, this campy musical spoof of the classic cartoon special is starting to feel a little dated. Sure, the material is updated with current cultural references (Britney Spears on Twitter, Michael Jackson and “Tardy for the Party” all get mentions), but some of the humor and gay puns feel about as fresh as a Will & Grace rerun. The story revolves around a young, cross-dressing Rudolph (Alex Grelle) who’s not invited to play in “reindeer games” because he doesn’t fit in with the others. Subplots involve a gay elf who’s not gay enough (played by Carson Kressley look-alike Chris Walsh), an Abominable Drag-beast and the Island of Misfit Toys. The moral of the story (accepting yourself and others) isn’t specifically about Christmas, but it’s a good lesson nonetheless. Ed Jones steals the show as a hilariously drunken Mrs. Claus. —Kevin Aeh
The Santaland Diaries
Theater Wit. By David Sedaris. Adapted by Joe Mantello. Dir. Jeremy Wechsler. With Mitchell Fain.
Working the audience like a rented mule and dramatically guzzling a martini between bits, Fain retells in bitchy monologue Sedaris’s now-famous tale of working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s. Fans of the original will thrill to the stories of overbearing parents, incompetent Santas and elfin sabotage. Hearing the humiliating ups and downs from someone other than Sedaris essentially changes it from memoir to fiction, which removes some of the original punch. The story is still a funny one, though, and Fain makes it his campy own. —Ruth Welte
A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant
Next Theatre Company. By Kyle Jarrow. Dir. Kathryn Walsh. With ensemble cast.
Jarrow’s idea—a Best Christmas Pageant Ever–style show that recounts the life of Scientology guru L. Ron Hubbard—is funny enough, but unlike many high concepts, with the right group of tweens it can be executed well without overstaying its welcome. This edition is expanded by Jarrow and Next artistic director Jason Southerland with a few more songs than the original version (which can be seen at A Red Orchid Theatre). Director Walsh doesn’t dig into subtext as much as Steve Wilson’s AROT production, but she makes up for it with intentionally ridiculous set pieces, and her cast charms. —Kris Vire
A Christmas Carol
Goodman Theatre. By Charles Dickens. Adapted by Tom Creamer. Dir. William Brown. With ensemble cast.
Sure, this production has been around forever (32 years, to be exact), but if you think it’s too tired to be worth your time, you need to reconsider. Although the show is as haunting as Dickens intended, Larry Yando as Ebenezer Scrooge injects unexpected humor and wit in the darkest of moments. While Alex Weisman’s overzealous Ghost of Christmas Past feels cheesy and out of place, Penelope Walker’s performance as the Ghost of Christmas Present is endearing enough to make you forget the Past. With beautiful caroling and a surprisingly entertaining dance number, this rendition of a timeless tale will surely delight even the most jaded theatergoers. —Stephanie Gladney
It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play
American Theater Company. Adapted from the Frank Capra film. Dir. Jason W. Gerace. With ensemble cast.
Deadly earnest and beautifully performed, ATC’s classy, good-humored production scratches that Wonderful itch with aplomb. The “studio audience” (that’s you) watches a 1940s radio production of the classic tale of a do-gooder losing his faith and regaining it after a touch of divine intervention. Kareem Bandealy’s take on George Bailey contains enough Jimmy Stewart to make you nostalgic without veering into caricature. And an onstage Foley sound guy, who cranks a drum-and-sheet setup to create “wind,” rings a bell every time an angel gets his wings. —Ruth Welte
The Snow Queen
Victory Gardens Theater. By Hans Christian Andersen. Adapted by Michael Smith, Frank Galati and Blair Thomas. Dir. Jim Corti. With Smith, Leslie Ann Sheppard, Andrew Keltz.
Annual holiday productions may be guaranteed cash cows, but they rarely represent the best live theater has to offer. Victory Gardens’s adaptation of Andersen’s magical fairy tale about a girl’s quest to rescue her best friend from the evil Snow Queen shatters that stereotype, giving Chicago a yearly tradition worth celebrating. Sheppard is a delight as Gerda, but the quirky crew of musicians who double as cast members (Sue Demel, Cathy Norden, Bob Goins) gives comedic life to Smith’s witty lyrics. Blair Thomas’s inventive puppets are the icing on the cake. —Amy Carr
It Came Upon a Midnight Queen
Chemically Imbalanced Comedy. By Angie McMahon. Dir. Brian Kash. With ensemble cast.
A good holiday show takes that warm, gooey feeling that bubbles inside most of us during the holiday season and brings it straight to the surface. Damn if this goofy tale about a recession-stressed small town in crisis didn’t leave us applauding with joy. When a big company threatens to level the local community center, a ten-year-old makes a YouTube plea to Nick Nolte to help her stage a Christmas spectacular. When she becomes a viral video star, the locals rally around her retelling of the death and resurrection of Christ, set (naturally) to the music of Queen. In the lead role, Casey Pilkenton charms our socks off, as does her cohort Chris Froseth as her unflappable bestie, Dawayne. —Jason A. Heidemann
The David Bowie Hepzikat Funky Velvet Flarney Solstice Spectacular, Live…from Space!
New Millennium Theatre Company. By Steven Attanasie. Dir. Attanasie. With ensemble cast.
In 1977, Bing Crosby and David Bowie created one of the most bizarre moments in TV history when they sang “Little Drummer Boy.” That seems to be the seed of this absurd little camp throwaway about putting on a Christmas show. It strands Aladdin Sane–era Bowie aboard a spaceship with a cadre of pop icons, from the drugged-out (Iggy Pop, Marianne Faithfull) to the attention-starved (Mick Jagger, Annie Lennox, three ghosts of Freddie Mercury), whose cheap slapstick antics take the show—and the show within the show—into the outer reaches of silly. It doesn’t help that no one in the cast can sing the glam tracks. —Jake Malooley
A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant
A Red Orchid Theatre. By Kyle Jarrow. Dir. Steve Wilson. With ensemble cast.
Like transparent gift wrap, the title reveals just what you’re getting: A gaggle of (startlingly talented) kids sing, talk and dance about Scientology. In the pageant’s simple-but-effective running joke, mini thespians act out Scientologist beliefs with straight faces, ancient-evil-space-prince and all. They eventually get around to outright criticism of the sect—notably its pesky tendency to bankrupt the devout. The results are sometimes disturbing and often funny, though at times the action lags and even the adorability of the cast and the preposterousness of the “science of the mind” can’t keep things going. —Ruth Welte
Winter Pageant 2009
Redmoon Theater. Created by Vanessa Stalling, Jim Lasko, Frank Maugeri, Rebecca Hunter. Dir. Stalling. With ensemble cast.
From toy theater to shadow puppets to magically mobile set pieces to general tomfoolery, Redmoon pulls out all the stops for its 15th annual Winter Pageant. With help from wacky costumes (bubble-blowing astronauts) and fanciful choreography (an amazing slo-mo food fight), the talented cast acts out the four seasons, poetically presented as gifts, using few spoken words. A giant cake-seeking baby might frighten the wee ones, but the staccato pace leaves little time to dwell on scary (or boring) scenes. —Jessica Herman
Miracle on 34th Street
Porchlight Music Theatre. By Valentine Davies. Adapted by Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder, Will Severin, John Vreeke. Dir. L. Walter Stearns. With ensemble cast.
“Faith is believing when common sense tells you not to,” says Doris Walker (Christa Buck Van Ermen), the pragmatic Macy’s manager, as she finally embraces the Christmas spirit. It’s not a bad mantra to keep in mind while the classic 1947 film, with the premise that there’s more to Christmas than consumerism, becomes transmuted (and diluted) into seasonal stage schlock. But beneath the heavy layer of kid-friendly cheese coating this 2000 musical adaptation, somewhere between the Christmas-carol interludes, there’s still a surprisingly meaty trial scene and a timeless story. —Julia Kramer