Beautiful, Bad Hombres, and nine more holiday stage shows to see | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Beautiful, Bad Hombres, and nine more holiday stage shows to see

An Equity touring production of the Carole King musical and an evening of Latinx sketch comedy are among this week's best bets.

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Altar Boyz This toothless send-up of boy bands, Christian rock, and Catholicism (music and lyrics by Gary Adler and Michael Patrick Walker, book by Kevin Del Aguila, based on an idea by Marc J. Kessler and Ken Davenport) is too gentle to be called satire, too tongue-in-cheek to be taken seriously, too risque to be religious. The tunes, though, are easy on the ear, and the lyrics witty—or at least witty enough to keep an audience’s attention. That’s especially so when the show is performed, as it here, by five energetic triple threats who know how to keep the show moving (thanks surely to Sawyer Smith’s choreography) and give the show’s paper-thin characters the illusion of a depth. Courtney Crouse directs. —Jack Helbig

Bad Hombres - COURTESY THE ARTIST
  • Courtesy the Artist
  • Bad Hombres

[Recommended] Bad Hombres The jokes really land in this personal, political, and cathartic late-night double bill of sketch and improv groups Spic & Tan and Mario in iO’s Chris Farley Cabaret. Rich Alfonso and Miguel Lepe perform a series of two-man sketches that play off experiences and personalities from their own lives, including a fumbling but sweet encounter between a young man and the Spanish-speaking father of a girl he’s dating, and a professional wedding photographer’s party duties getting usurped by a drunk guy with an iPhone. In the Mario set, Damian Anaya, Cesar Jaime, and Jose Molina skewer the current cultural climate. My favorite touch: an obnoxious ICE agent’s walk-on for a Q&A to blaring rap rock, the soundtrack of insufferable tools everywhere. —Dan Jakes

[Recommended] Beautiful You gotta love Carole King, especially as she’s presented in this jukebox bio-musical chronicling her rise from teenage pop prodigy—writing hits for everybody from Bobby Vee to the Shirelles—to the solo rock auteur of the Tapestry album. A good Jewish girl with conventional domestic dreams, she even makes an endearing doormat as she attempts to save her marriage to songwriting partner Gerry Goffin (great lyricist, rotten husband). When an Equity touring production like this one hit Chicago last year, I called it sweet, fun, and comfortable, and so it remains. The first act has an exuberance that’s necessarily missing from the second, as we move from King’s amazingly productive youth to her sadder-but-wiser maturity. As directed by Marc Bruni, though, the whole functions with all the efficiency of the Brill Building hit-making factory where King started. One oddity: Sarah Bockel’s otherwise excellent lead performance seems to take her closer to Barbra Streisand than King in the end. —Tony Adler

The Character Assassination of Donald Trump, at Collaboraction - WAYNE KUPFERER
  • Wayne Kupferer
  • The Character Assassination of Donald Trump, at Collaboraction

The Character Assassination of Donald Trump The show’s savage title, with its perhaps unintentional echoing of Peter Weiss’s masterpiece The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade promises more than director David McGrath and his fellow writers (Eric Coleman, Jamie Quinones, Dave Kwitkowski) can deliver. What we get is 90 minutes of lame material, not even as good as the stuff you see on TV, performed without energy or urgency or wit. The show does contain some sparks of life. Jenny Miller delivers a dead-on impersonation of Senator Elizabeth Warren, and Meir Steinberg kills as the World’s Angriest Magician. Most of the time, though, the proceedings creep along at a petty pace from joke to joke to the last syllable of recorded time. —Jack Helbig

The Christmas Schooner, at the Mercury Theater - BRETT A. BEINER
  • Brett A. Beiner
  • The Christmas Schooner, at the Mercury Theater

The Christmas Schooner Mercury Theater Chicago presents this musical valentine (book by John Reeger, music and lyrics by Julie Shannon) to a German-American triumph in commerce. When Captain Stossel receives a letter from a relation in Chicago pining for the Christmas trees of their idyllic youth back in Bremen, he hits upon the idea of chopping down the overabundant forest nearby, filling his schooner, and sailing through harsh November waters down from his home in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula to spread holiday joy and make a buck in the bargain. Met with overwhelming demand, the Christmas Schooner becomes a beloved yearly tradition hardly slowed even by its originator’s death by shipwreck a mere five years into the enterprise. One’s enjoyment of these proceedings will depend largely on one’s attitude toward Christmas in America and the commerce it exults. Humming carols while frolicking through the mall? This show will fill your heart with holiday cheer; the rest of us will just have to shiver out in the cold. L. Walter Stearns directed. —Dmitry Samarov

Gingerbread Grindhouse - COURTESY GHOSTLIGHT ENSEMBLE
  • Courtesy Ghostlight Ensemble
  • Gingerbread Grindhouse

Gingerbread Grindhouse Dolls come to life and ruin Christmas in this squalid twofer from horror mongers Ghostlight Ensemble and friends. First we get a set of short, mostly improvised pieces, “live trailers” from a variety of local companies that excerpt imaginary holiday slashers to come; my favorite, and the least intentionally bad, was by the Stuntmen. After intermission, with E. T. A. Hoffman’s classic Nutcracker tale somewhere in the background, the main event follows Marie (Tatum Hunter) as she defends her family from the evil spirits of her new “Guatemalan worry dolls,” gifts from kooky god-uncle Herr Drosselmeier (Sean Harklerode). Playwright Maria Burnham’s script has its moments, but as the after-hours show wears on past midnight, its scary parts not scary enough and its funny parts not funny at all, the action drags, the magic subsides, and the groans (of boredom, not terror) multiply. Chad Wise directs. —Max Maller

Red Theater's Little Red Cyrano - M. FREER PHOTOGRAPHY
  • M. Freer Photography
  • Red Theater's Little Red Cyrano

Little Red Cyrano Shy audience members should brace themselves before seeing Red Theater’s “apocalyptic clown comedy” mashup of “Little Red Riding Hood” and Cyrano de Bergerac, as the audience is expected to participate throughout. In part, it’s a clever device by artistic director Aaron Sawyer to get viewers comfortable with communicating using their hands and to break down barriers between deaf and hearing performers and viewers. There are times when the combination of direct translations, video subtitles, and poetic movement pieces creates poignant moments, as when a series of playful back-and-forths with the audience results in everyone in the room signaling “alone.” But it’s hard to make heads or tails of the thing as a whole—the two stories just don’t click. —Dan Jakes

Hell in a Handbag Productions' Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer - RICK AGUILAR
  • Rick Aguilar
  • Hell in a Handbag Productions' Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer

[Recommended] Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer Hell in a Handbag’s drag-infused holiday extravaganza wouldn’t be celebrating its 20th anniversary if it didn’t change with the times, and after a year of President Trump, writer David Cerda has plenty of fresh material to lampoon. In this year’s Rudolph, Santa (Michael Jack Hampton) is elected president of the North Pole, giving him a new wife, Iwanka (Cerda), and press secretary, Connie Ann Blitzen (Terry McCarthy). Trump gags dominate the first half, but this change also intensifies the theme of intolerance at the core of the production. Rudolph (Graham Thomas Heacock) and Herbie (Kristopher Bottrall) are queer heroes on a journey to self-acceptance, and their obstacles have only gotten bigger this year. Heacock and Bottrall give delightfully cartoonish performances, and while the show feels long at two hours, it provides a steady supply of catty Christmas cheer. —Oliver Sava

E.D.G.E. Theatre's Steampunk Christmas Carol - INDIE GRANT PRODUCTIONS
  • Indie Grant Productions
  • E.D.G.E. Theatre's Steampunk Christmas Carol

Steampunk Christmas Carol E.D.G.E. Theatre (whose name is an acronym for “Esteem Development Through Greater Expectations”) puts a steampunk spin on Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, having the familiar tale acted out and narrated by 19th-century robots. Scrooge’s dutiful clerk Bob Cratchit is now “Barb Ratchet”; Tiny Tim is now “Tinker Tim,” in need of a new mechanical leg to replace its rusty old one; and Scrooge’s eccentric mentor, Mr. Fezziwig, is now a female Dr. Frankenstein-like alchemist, Mad Madam Fizzlewig, who creates a female automaton, Claire, as a possible mate for Scrooge. The idea of infusing Dickens’s ghost story with Industrial Revolution-age science-fiction elements is intriguing, but director-playwright Jared McDaris doesn’t investigate the premise’s possibilities in this amateurish low-budget effort. —Albert Williams

Trap Door Theatre's They - MIHAL JANICKI
  • Mihal Janicki
  • Trap Door Theatre's They

They It’s a big deal that Trap Door Theatre has revived this black-comic satire by Polish polymath Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. Avant-garde in 1920 and uncompromising now, it touches on authoritarianism and art, misogyny and media as it tells the tale of Callisto Balandash, a clueless aesthete who finds himself targeted by a shadowy government agency that seems bent on purging degenerate art but turns out to be animated by more personal motives. The connections Witkiewicz draws among diverse subjects—not to mention his ability to deflate them all—is at once grim, silly, and prophetic. Trouble is, the cast under adapter-director Beata Pilch push their performances so far into heavy-handed freneticism that the production becomes difficult to watch at just 80 minutes. Carl Wisniewski’s Callisto is the worst example. On the other hand, Mary-Kate Arnold manages to give some fire to Callisto’s long-suffering lover, Spika. —Tony Adler

’Twas the Fight Before Christmas Robert Frosty’s “fight sketch revue” begins with a reading of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” interrupted by moments where actors beat each other up, and while it’s not especially creative, it highlights how stage combat can invigorate standard holiday material. A showdown between the Grinch and a John McClane-inspired Frosty the Snowman blends exciting choreography with goofy, dark humor. Representatives of different holidays gang up on Santa Claus because Christmas is encroaching on their turf, leading to a free-for-all that cleverly incorporates Thor and his magical hammer. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of material here that doesn’t involve stage combat, including multiple musical numbers that all fall flat. There’s an especially painful number involving “Tiger Hitler” that literally stops the show, and adding a bit about its offensive nature just draws attention to why this sketch should’ve been cut in the first place. —Oliver Sava

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