I call it "the sugarplums-and-treacle time of year." Kelly calls it "another chance for Jonathan to spout off."
Obviously, we're talking about the same thing: that six-week hiatus — from mid-November through the New Year— during which theaters large and small abandon art in favor of Yuletide commerce, raking in dollars with a Holiday Season show.
We know they are successful because there are more and more of them every twelfth month, and they never disappear: Just like a seasonal allergy the same shows—and generally the very same productions of them — come back year after year. Some have been around for decades now. According to our careful calculations, Chicago area theaters and dance companies are offering no fewer than 40 Holiday Season shows in theaters throughout the city and suburbs.
The two oldest Holiday Season theater "traditions" are The Nutcracker ballet danced to Tchaikovsky's ever-tasty roasted chestnut of a score, and A Christmas Carol. Both always are available in numerous versions presented with varying degrees of opulence and fidelity to the originals.
As far back as I can remember (and that's 60 years, rounded to the nearest decade), The Nutcracker has been presented as a family-friendly Holiday Season special event. For eons (it seems) it was the province of the Chicago Tribune Charities in a version staged by the late Ruth Page. However, for the last 17 years The Nutcracker has been owned and operated (one might say) by The Joffrey Ballet in a lavish version which even curmudgeonly critics openly can enjoy (Dec. 7-27, Auditorium Theatre). The Joffrey production features live musical accompaniment by the Chicago Philharmonic Orchestra.
As for A Christmas Carol, the Mother of All Local Productions is the big one at the Goodman Theatre, now in its 35th year (through Dec. 29). The Goodman version not only is lavish but it’s also true to the tone and spirit of Charles Dickens's 1843 novella.
Y'see, Dickens didn't write A Christmas Carol for kids and families. His target was the adult populace who made Christmas happen, or not. It's a ghost story intended to scare the bejesus out of people or, more correctly, scare the be-Jesus back into folks at a time when Christmas, in Dickens's view, had grown crassly commercial and non-spiritual. The Goodman version is NOT suitable for very young children (say, under six or seven) because it IS scary and also because it's not short. Those who prefer a 75-minute musical reduction of the tale, suitable for wee ones, will find several of them around town.
Now that I've gotten all of that off my chest, Ms. Kleiman and I offer some ideas of the range of Holiday Season fare available to those with varying tastes. The productions below are far from a comprehensive list. We offer merely a stuffed stocking of choices in four categories: Family-Friendly Traditional, Adult Traditional, Alternative/Weird (generally for adults) and New.
You don’t have to be earnest, but these are plays about the season that will reward the un-ironic attention of grownups as well as older children.
It’s a Wonderful Life (x 2). After the divorce between American Theater Company and American Blues Theater, each got (or took) custody of this crowd-pleaser, an old-time radio script version of the famous Frank Capra film. The American Blues version is at Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre (Downtown, Nov. 23-Dec. 30). The American Theater Company's version, part of its “Radio Rep” (The Wizard of Oz is on deck), plays at the troupe's Northcenter location (also Nov. 23-Dec. 30) and will actually be recorded for broadcast on WBEZ. Before you take small children to either one, remember that it’s about suicide.
The reconstituted Congo Square Theatre offers The Nativity, McKinley Johnson’s story of the journey of Joseph and Mary, with music and lyrics by Jaret Landon. Add gospel music and modern dance and it should be a delightful evening (Kennedy-King College Theatre, Dec. 13th-23rd).
The House Theatre of Chicago, always first-rate storytellers, repeats its version of The Nutcracker, more closely adapted from the E.T.A. Hoffman German original about spooky magic on Christmas night (at the Chopin Theatre through Dec. 30). It has original music in it and dance, but it's NOT the traditional ballet. Not a note of Tchaikovsky to be heard. The House says it's a family show, and why not? After all, the villain is a rodent and city kids probably are used to rats.
The gang at ComedySportz is offering It's a Bierberful Life (Fridays at Midnight, through Dec. 29) in which Justin is "saved" by an angel who looks like Robert Pattinson, and Profiles Theatre is presenting a 20th anniversary new production of Will Kern's Hellcab (Profiles mainstage through Dec. 23) in which a put-upon Chicago cabbie deals with a collection of Christmas Eve crazies, and Chemically Imbalanced Comedy stages Dirty 30's Christmas (Dec. 7-Jan.12) featuring guns, booze, dames, deadbeats, gangsters and bank robbers in Depression Era Kansas (yes, it's a comedy).
Tongue-in-cheek or outright cynical, a few alternative choices have entered the realm of Chicago holiday "tradition." Consider The Santaland Diaries, the tart and funny reflections of David Sedaris on seasonal employment as a department store elf. It's been done by Theater Wit for eight years now (Nov. 23-Dec. 29 in its still-new Belmont Avenue digs), with Mitchell Fain once again the star. Mr. Fain has made this elf role so much his own, we hear his ears now are permanently pointed.
Also returning for its 12th year, courtesy of Hell in a Handbag Productions (Nov. 29-Dec. 30 at Mary's Attic in Andersonville), is the annually-updated Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer, about a darling little transvestite quadruped.
One more choice is Charles Dickens Begrudgingly Performs "A Christmas Carol." Again, which nicely straddles the line between world-weary and inspiring as Dickens himself, whom most supposed to have died in 1870, proves he is alive, if not quite well. Blake Montgomery is as cranky as one could wish as he essays the 200-year-old Dickens, reduced to a one-trick pony, at the Building Stage (Nov. 29-Dec. 24 at the Building Stage in the Randolph Market area).
We’ve already noted the Goodman Theatre production of A Christmas Carol, but at least two other takes on the tale are catering to suburban family audiences: the Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace presents daily matinees of an hour-long musical version clearly intended for children (Nov. 23-Dec. 22), and Piccolo Theatre in Evanston adapts the tale as an English-style Xmas panto under the title Bah, Humbug! (Evanston Arts Depot, through Dec. 22).
The Christmas Schooner, long a local holiday tradition, now is in the second year of a new production at a different theater, the Mercury Theater (Nov. 23-Dec. 30). This original, lyrical musical by John Reeger and the late Julie Shannon is a fact-based, Chicago-specific musical about the sailing ship that brought Christmas trees to Chicago from Michigan every year–until one year it didn’t. In fact, this is the 100th anniversary of the wreck of the "Rouse Simmons," the actual Xmas tree ship.
Now in its spiffy new home in Uptown, the Black Ensemble Theatre remounts its Christmas show of many years, The Other Cinderella, a take on the fairy tale so vibrant and sweet and wonderfully sung that you’ll almost forget it’s not actually a Christmas story.
The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey, an original adaptation of an award-winning children's book, is back for a second year at Provision Theater, a troupe dedicated to advancing Christian values. The tale of a boy and a grumpy woodcarver who bond in the spirit of the season is presented at the Chernin Arts Center (Nov. 21-Dec. 23) near UIC.
Trying to find a new Holiday Season show actually is difficult, although the earnest but light-hearted Hannukatz the Musical comes close as it's only in its second year. National Pastime Theater (in the Preston Bradley Center in Uptown) presents this brief easy-rock exploration of the Jewish Feast of Lights, suitable for the family (Nov. 29-Dec. 30).
For really new, however, consider The Gifts of the Magi at Porchlight Music Theatre (through Dec. 23), the Chicago premiere of an 85-minute musical by Mark St. Germain and Randy Courts that combines two classic O'Henry short stories, the familiar tale of impoverished newlyweds Jim and Della, and the story of street bum Soapy Smith who wants only cozy jail cell for Xmas. Sounds like another Holiday Season "tradition" in the making.
Also, there's the multi-cultural, all-inclusive It's a Wonderful Santa Land Miracle Nut-Cracking Christmas Story . . . Jews Welcome at Stage 773 (through Dec. 30), promising singing, dancing, stories, audience-interactive games and "non-holiday specific eggnog." They say it's an all-holiday show for all ages.
Finally, The Agency Collective offers Out of Tune Confessional, a new musical “holiday show for the holiday wary," at the Underground Wonder Bar (Nov. 23-Dec. 15). The holidays somehow bring together a trio of musicians whose between-song patter reveals more angst than the torchiest torch song.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed the venue for the American Blues Theatre production of It's a Wonderful Life.