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The ho ho ho show review

Reader critics weigh in on eight new holiday shows

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It's no Halloween, of course, but Christmas always brings forth a respectable crop of live shows. Well, maybe not entirely respectable. For every wondrous visit from the ghost of Charles Dickens, there's an unholy late-night thing about Santa and what really goes on with those elves. Here's an assortment of new cases in point. For more—and there will be much, much more—check our listings now and over the next few weeks.

[Recommended] A Christmas Carol Goodman Theatre's 35th annual staging of the Charles Dickens classic is a crowd-pleasing showboat of a show, crammed tight with music and dance, special effects, period costumes, huge set pieces that swing in and out of place, and an enormous cast. The spectacle would be enchantment enough, but the storytelling is first-rate, too. Tom Creamer's venerable adaptation pulls no punches as it guides us through Ebenezer Scrooge's dark Christmas Eve of the soul, retaining both the feel of Dickens's prose and the full power of his plot. The acting, also, is superb. There's truly not a weak performance in the production, and Larry Yando makes a rich, multilayered, wholly satisfying Scrooge. To twist Oscar Wilde's quip about the death of another Dickens character, Little Nell, one must have a heart of stone not to be entertained. Jack Helbig Through 12/29: Tue-Thu 7:30 PM, Fri 8 PM, Sat 2 and 8 PM, Sun 2 and 6:30 PM, check with theater for additions and exceptions, Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $25-$82.

[Recommended]The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey Based on the 1995 children's book by Susan Wojciechowski, Provision Theater's original musical presents the heartwarming tale of a scrooge turned softie. When ten-year-old Thomas loses the wooden nativity scene his dead father left him, his mother convinces local grouch and woodcarver extraordinaire Jonathan Toomey to carve a replacement. What follows is your typical Christmastime story of love, loss, and redemption spurred by the holiday spirit. Directed by Timothy Gregory (who also wrote the adaptation with composer Michael Mahler), Christmas Miracle's unique smarts lie in its elaborate staging, scene-stealing backup band, and delightful child actors. Liberal doses of all-ages humor help when things verge on cheesiness. Although clearly aimed at young children, the production's quality and irreverence might appeal to—and even thaw—a heart as jaded as Jonathan Toomey's. Marissa Oberlander Through 12/23: Wed 10 AM, Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Provision Theater Company, 1001 W. Roosevelt, 773-506-4429, provisiontheater.org, $10-$32.

El Stories: Holiday Train The CTA doesn't offer many pleasant surprises, but its annual holiday train—blazing surreally through the cold pre-Christmas nights, with Santa's sleigh in tow—is one of them. Which makes it natural fodder for Waltzing Mechanics, who've produced an entertaining stream of sketch shows about serendipity on the eldrawn from straphangers' true stories. This holiday installment suffers from its narrow focus, though: the ensemble is forced to replay encounters with the holiday train over and over. Before long, the thrill is gone. As directed by Zack Florent, El Stories is modest fun in the manner of so many holiday shows that coast by on candy-cane runners. If only you could put a play on for background noise, like a radio tuned to holiday hits, while making gingerbread men, this production might work nicely. Keith Griffith Through 1/5: Sat 11 PM, Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln, 773-404-7336, greenhousetheater.org, $15.

The Gifts of the Magi Mark St. Germain and Randy Courts evidently decided that O. Henry's short story "The Gift of the Magi" was too thin to stand on its own, so they paired it with another of his corny little tales for this uninspired 1984 musical. The second story, "The Cop and the Anthem," concerns a bum named Soapy who tries to get himself arrested as a way of securing room and board for the winter. In St. Germain's script, Soapy's tedious comic scenes are interspersed with saccharine ones about a dirt-poor married couple practicing sacrificial gift giving on Christmas Eve. Mark Lococo's staging for Porchlight Music Theatre is an exercise in risk-free nostalgia, featuring a cast whose fine voices are wasted on Courts's instantly forgotten score. Zac Thompson Through 12/23: Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM, Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, 773-327-5252, stage773.com, $39.

It's a Bieberful Life In a city as saturated with comedy as Chicago is, clubs need a draw. The youthful, late-night vibe at ComedySportz is just right for a low-key midnight hangout show—but the material still has to measure up. Mixing parody and pop culture—both tepid go-tos for sketch material—writer/director Mel Evans positions pop idol Justin Bieber as George Bailey, the suicidal hero of Frank Capra's 1946 holiday classic It's a Wonderful Life. Mortified by a slight dip in CD sales, Biebs (Maria Randazzo, whose dance popping is more disarming and entertaining than the show deserves) wishes his mom had followed through on her famous abortion plans. roster of TMZ celebrities is affected. Evans's cast show potential and glimmers of inspiration but don't have much to build on with their one-joke characters. Even at 40 minutes, the material drags. Dan Jakes Through 12/29: Fri midnight, ComedySportz Theatre, 929 W. Belmont, 773-549-8080, comedysportzchicago.com, $5-$10.

It's a Wonderful Santa Land Miracle Nut Cracking Christmas Story . . . Jews Welcome The title of this Street Tempo Theatre family "extravaganza" suggests a hodgepodge, and a hodgepodge is what's delivered. The show starts out promisingly, with a genial chaos and fresh-baked cookies. An angelic ballerina coexists alongside tap dancers, old holiday video clips, and some sweet rock 'n' roll. But what initially seems easygoing ends up feeling just plain sloppy—in concept as much as in execution. There are missteps (a bad-taste comic bit about a missing prosthesis) that distort the tone. And misfires (a speech from Scrooge's housekeeper) that no doubt looked a lot better on paper. Cornball jokes never achieve camp velocity. And the unity-in-diversity theme comes across as simpleminded when it's not full-out insulting. In the most embarrassing moment, two members of the all-white cast put on kente-cloth hats and extol Kwanzaa. Tony Adler Through 12/30: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, 773-327-5252, stage773.com, $30.

Santa Claus Vs. the Easter Bunny Michael Houghton Wagman wrote, produced, directed, and designed sound for this campy, R-rated musical satire from Vampire Koala. He probably should've divvied up those duties. He needs a partner to help him differentiate between his ingenious ideas (the megalomaniacal Easter Bunny assembles an army of woodland creatures to leave Santa "in ruins") and his lame ones (they delay the attack a few days so they won't miss their favorite TV programs). Everything else in the 35-minute piece is similarly uneven, from the performances andstaging to the score—which, weirdly, ends halfway through the show. Inasmuch as Hell in a Handbag and the Annoyance have each spent years giving Christmas first-rate, potty-mouthed dressings down, Vampire Koala is a bit late to the party and ought to be trying that much harder. Justin Hayford Through 12/28: Fri 10:30 PM, Donny's Skybox Studio, 1608 N. Wells, 312-337-3992, secondcity.com, $8-$13.

[Recommended] The Santaland Diaries Best-selling essayist and This American Life darling David Sedaris first performed this monologue, recounting his experiences as a Macy's Christmas elf, in 1992. Loathing subsequent productions, it's said he's been careful to be out of the country every holiday season since. No problem. Wry comic Mitchell Fain makes the material very much his own in Theater Wit's production directed by Jeremy Wechsler. White wine in hand, Fain's temp elf complains about his stagnating career, comments on the bizarre backstage ecosystem of the department store Santa industry, and, flexing his ad-lib muscles, shoots the shit with the audience. A few too many punch lines get steamrolled by shouted delivery, but when Fain relaxes, his holiday storytelling is as guilty and cathartic as a hot Christmas Eve toddy. Dan Jakes Through 12/30: Thu 7:30 PM, Fri-Sat 7:30 and 9:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, check with theater for additions and exceptions, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150, theaterwit.org, $18-$35.

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