The Dueling Critics' guide to holiday theater: Tinsel and treacle triumph!

November 16, 2011

There are so many holiday shows that if we, the Dueling Critics, didn't restrict ourselves in some way we'd be here til Easter. So each of us offers a list of the top shows that are worth your time (or at least not too agonizing to sit through) for the holidays. The Ghost of Christmas Present will be played by Kelly Kleiman; the role of Scrooge will be played by Jonathan Abarbanel.

THE GHOST OF CHRISTMAS PRESENT SAYS:

It's easy to make fun of the Goodman's A Christmas Carol, because the text is so well-known and the production so entrenched. But that's just another way of saying it's a holiday tradition, and with the incomparable Larry Yando as Scrooge and the skillful Steve Scott at the helm, the show is well worth seeing. At least once. A Christmas Carol runs November 18 through New Year's Eve; tickets go as high as $80, but at 10 a.m. each performance morning the box office sells $10 tickets for students and half-price mezzanine tickets for everyone else. 

Enough deference. Now we can get on with the season's favorite sport, which is making fun of the season. The Building Stage reaches right back to the source with its Charles Dickens Begrudgingly Performs 'A Christmas Carol' Again, with artistic director Blake Montgomery as the exhausted and aggravated prisoner of his own success. If the troupe could conquer Moby-Dick--and it did--surely it can manage Dickens. December 1 through 24th at 412 North Carpenter in the West Loop; tickets are $22, $12 for children and students.

It's a good idea to check out another one-man show when the man in question is Steve Pickering, former artistic director of Next Theatre and directing-designing-writing-performing polymath. This time around he's producing and performing St. Nicholas, Conor McPherson's 1997 mashup of Christmas and vampires. As anyone who's seen The Weir or Dublin Carol or The Seafarer can tell you, McPherson is a prodigiously talented contemporary Irish writer; and in Pickering he's met his match. See the show at the Irish-American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox; its run will benefit Seanachai Theatre and Pickering's Shanghai Low Theatricals. St. Nicholas runs Thursdays-Sundays December 1-18; tickets are $20.

At the Chicago Theatre, you'll find the national tour of A Christmas Story, The Musical! Though the Ghost is prejudiced against productions with exclamation points in their names, and worries about the addition of music to Jean Shepherd's delicate story of a family Christmas in Indiana, she's prepared to put herself in the hands of Tony Award-winning director John Rando and long-time Wicked Wizard Gene Weygandt. The show runs December 14 through 30 only, with tickets from $35-$79. Hey, they've got to pay for the theatre's gold leaf interior somehow!

And finally, if Xmas in the city is starting to get you down, blow town for Spring Green, Wisconsin, beginning this weekend (November 20) to see American Players Theatre's original musical The Gift of the Magi. (Indoors, of course, at the new Touchstone Theatre.) Tickets: $36. A weekend near Taliesin: priceless.

SCROOGE SAYS: Me as Scrooge? Why, don’t be silly. Why would I want to be redeemed when I’m perfect the way I am? Besides, the Ghost of Xmas Yet to Come is scarier and more threatening, so I’ll take that one. Of course, I DO refer to this as the “sugarplums-and-treacle time of year” when it comes to theater, so perhaps there’s a tiny bit of Scrooge in me after all.

First of all, in the spirit of interfaith pluralism, there’s Hannukatz the Musical, a family-friendly, audience-interactive presentation celebrating the other major monotheistic religious holiday of the season. Written by Terry Abrahamson and Michael Carlson (music), it’s described as contemporary retelling of the story of the world’s first oil crisis. Y’see, there’s this Jewish cat—literally, a cat (like in that other musical)—who’s a rock musician and comes to Skokie to tell the Hannukah story to the Moskowitz Kids. Hannukatz the Musical runs through Dec. 31 at the National Pastime Theatre, 4139 N. Broadway. There’s even a Xmas Day show with Chinese buffet. FTY: Hannukah overlaps Xmas this year, running Dec. 21-28.

Then, in the spirit of dysfunctional families in which everyone really hates the idea of spending Xmas with all the others, I offer Season’s Greetings at Northlight Theatre. Since this is a farce written by Sir Alan Ayckbourn, you know that whatever might possibly go wrong does. The plot entails mistaken identity, under-the-tree promiscuity, a dreadful puppet show, an incompetent doctor (just imagine) and a senile retired security guard, all of which should be enough to cook your Xmas goose and curb your holiday enthusiasm. Director BJ Jones has put together a first-rate cast of Chicago veteran performers. Season’s Greetings continues at Northlight, 9501 Skokie Blvd. in Skokie, through Dec. 18.

Next, in the spirit of transvestism, I must mention Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer, which for 14 years has been the annual holiday show for Hell in a Handbag Productions. Forget the popular song about the reindeer with the glow-in-the-dark nose, this original musical offers the real skinny on everyone’s favorite cross-dressing critter and his struggle to be accepted by all the elves and reindeer at Santa’s place. Each year author David Cerda refreshes and updates the show with new material. Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer runs through Dec. 30 at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark Street in Andersonville, the intimate bar/revue room above Hamburger Mary’s.

Next, in the spirit of elves and reindeer, there are the two monologue shows which have been offered every year since Time Immemorial (or so it seems): The Santaland Diaries at Theater Wit and The Eight: Reindeer Monologues also at Theater Wit (but presented by Stage Left Theatre Company). The Santaland Diaries are the account by David Sedaris of his days as a department store Xmas elf, and acerbic and jaundiced are only the first words that come to mind. Once again, Mitchell Fain is the Master Elf in this solo show, running through Dec. 31. Jeff Goode’s Eight Reindeer Monologues is a tale of bestiality and sexual harassment at the North Pole (something about Santa and a reindeer), and each of his eight tiny reindeer gets to speak his/her piece. Also through Dec. 31 (most performances at 10:30PM, when kids are asleep!).

Finally, in the spirit of, well, A Christmas Carol, we note that there are several alternative versions of the perennial holiday favorite, among them A Klingon Christmas Carol, performed entirely in Klingon (with projected English titles) by Commedia Beauregard at the Greenhouse Theatre Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, through Dec. 31; and A Christmas Carol: the Silent Bah-Humbug, a wordless adaptation of the tale as performed by the physical artists of the Silent Theatre Company through Dec. 30 at the arts center of St. Paul’s Church, 2215 W. North Avenue.