Maybe the bad economy inspired the bumper crop of Christmas shows we're seeing this year: everybody's looking for either a little sweetness or surefire box office. Here are short reviews of ten newly opened holiday shows; you'll find plenty more in our listings.
The Annoyance Christmas Pageant If you expect dick jokes aplenty in your Annoyance holiday offerings, you'll be disappointed by this 80-minute oddity. The show consists of verbatim stagings of two classic animated television specials, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974). Phil Meister's gung-ho cast tramp through these disjointed yet hyperefficient stories with nary a salacious wink or double entendre, aping the originals' stilted line readings, choppy movements, clumpy blocking, and unimaginative dance routines. It's a giddy, Fluxus-esque celebration of amateurism, complete with a few actors lacking any semblance of stage presence. Lisa McQueen's jazz trio provide impeccable accompaniment throughout; their note-perfect rendition of Vince Guaraldi's inspired Charlie Brown score is worth the price of admission. Through 12/18: Sat 8 PM, also Sun 12/5, 12/12, and 12/19, 2 PM, Annoyance Theatre, 4830 N. Broadway, 773-561-4665, annoyanceproductions.com, $12-$16. —Justin Hayford
Black Peter Venture Theater of Green Bay, Wisconsin, brings this misanthropic Christmas tale to Chicago, where it's likely to find an appreciative audience. A figure out of Dutch folklore, the title character is Saint Nicholas's menacing, dark-skinned assistant. He punishes naughty children by stuffing them into sacks, whisking them off to Spain, and beating them with a heavy stick. In playwright Pat Quigley's telling, Black Peter starts out as a beloved street mime but loses his love, his audience, and his charitable disposition after he's conscripted into a brutal war. He's just the man Kris Kringle needs to do his dirty work for him. Mike Eserkaln directs and plays Peter as a spritely, pitiable palooka. While a few key plot points make no sense, the show overall is charmingly unpleasant. Through 12/18: Fri-Sat 11/26-11/27, 8 PM, thereafter at 9:30 PM, Gorilla Tango Theatre, 1919 N. Milwaukee, 773-598-4549, gorillatango.com, $10. —Justin Hayford
A Christmas Carol Designed primarily for kids, this version of Charles Dickens's holiday classic clocks in at just over an hour. But there's nothing underdone about it. Director Scott Calcagno has assembled a first-rate ensemble, led by William Dick, who's especially good at making Ebenezer Scrooge come off as more than a cartoon cheapskate grouch. The storytelling is as effective as it is efficient, and it appeals to both adults and children. In the past my daughter was freaked out by the scarier elements of Scrooge's Christmas Eve haunting—Marley's chain-clanking appearance, the grim-reaper-like Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come—so I was pleased that this production manages to downplay those elements without blunting the narrative or message. Through 12/18: Mon-Sun, Drury Lane Oakbrook Terrace, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook, 630-530-0111, drurylaneoakbrook.com, $12. —Jack Helbig
A Christmas Carol After 33 years maybe it shouldn't be surprising that the Goodman Theatre's annual holiday show feels a little frayed around the edges. Most of the scenes drag or ramble a bit—and the caroling packed into every spare minute of the two-hour-plus show doesn't help move things along. More significantly, once the Christmas ghosts start spiriting Scrooge across time, director William Brown too often leaves the redeemable miser at the periphery, watching his life when he should be the primary dramatic focus. Still, a supremely likable cast tell Dickens's crafty, affecting tale with such candor that these serious flaws ultimately seem like minor quibbles. Try not to scream like a little girl when the monstrous Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come appears. I nearly did. Through 12/31: Tue-Sun, Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, 312-443-3800, goodmantheatre.org, $25-$76. —Justin Hayford
A Klingon Christmas Carol Charles Dickens's holiday classic undergoes a Trekkie makeover in this version by Minnesota's Commedia Beauregard, performed entirely in the Klingon language. Clad in impressive Comic-Con-grade costumes, the cast hock, grunt, and spit their way through the story of Scrooge's redemption—whose Klingon title translates as Feast of the Long Night Song. Director Christopher Kidder chooses to play most of it straight, and the result resembles Kabuki. Even with supertitles, it helps to have some grounding in sci-fi lore. Full-fledged Star Trek fans will obviously have a leg up. For the rest of us, it's a surreal, perplexing, fascinating visit from the Ghost of Pop References Past. Through 12/19: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 2:30 PM, Greenhouse Theater, 2257 N. Lincoln, 773-404-7336, greenhousetheater.org, $32. —Dan Jakes
Little Women: The Musical While not strictly a holiday show, this 2005 musical based on Louisa May Alcott's beloved tale of sisterly rivalry and bonding makes a handsome gift for the family. Allan Knee's book indulges in billboard dialogue (spoiled Amy: "I want fine things," headstrong Jo: "I want passion"), but the score by Jason Howland and Mindi Dickstein yields heart-stirring numbers, as when Kelli Harrington—playing matriarch Marmee, trying to cope without her husband during the Civil War—sings "Here Alone." There are some stiff supporting performances in Paul Packer's staging for NightBlue Performing Arts Company. But if you can keep a dry eye while dying Beth (Julia Macholl) reassures Jo (Erin O'Shea) that "Some Things Are Meant to Be," you're made of tougher stuff than I am. Through 12/19: Thu-Fri 7:30 PM, Sat 3 and 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM, Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, 773-327-5252, theatrebuildingchicago.org, $25-$27. —Kerry Reid
Sanders Family Christmas This holiday sequel to Smoke on the Mountain revels in old-fashioned, downhome sentiment. Performing on the first Christmas Eve after Pearl Harbor, the title family regale the congregation of a North Carolina Baptist church (i.e., us) with affecting confessionals, heartfelt sermonettes, seasonal anecdotes, and a well-chosen slew of country carols, sing-along favorites, and lesser-known Yuletide gems—all to the accompaniment of fiddles, a piano, a double bass, and clapping hands. Tim Gregory's eight-person cast—featuring the always irresistible Susan Moniz—never condescend. The charm is never forced and the nostalgia never cloys. Above all, the show's vision of simple folks stepping up to fight Hitler and cherish Christmas suggests the promise of decency, not just a fond remembrance. Through 12/23: Fri-Sat 8 PM, Sun 3 PM, Provision Theater Company, 1001 W. Roosevelt, 773-506-4429, provisiontheater.org, $25-$28. —Lawrence Bommer
The Santa Stories: The Naughty One There's potential in the premise (North Polers rebel when corporate America tries to rebrand Christmas) and the characters (Rudolph is a smooth-talking coke fiend, Mrs. Claus an oversexed hausfrau, and a closeted elfin toymaker's dolls are a bit too anatomically correct). But this X-rated Christmas comedy from pH Productions—evil twin to The Santa Stories: The Nice One (see below)—fixates on particularly humorless plot points like Rudolph's unpaid drug debts and a slimy corporate executive's penchant for little boys. As advertised, the show is "depraved, disgusting, and offensive," but the taboo subject matter isn't handled cleverly enough to trigger consistent laughs. Through 12/18: Fri-Sat midnight, Studio BE Theatre, 3110 N. Sheffield, 773-248- 5900, whatisph.com, $10. —Marissa Oberlander
The Santa Stories: The Nice One This child-friendly musical comedy from pH Productions offers unique answers to age-old questions, exposing Santa's origins as an elfin science experiment and Mrs. Claus's early years as an environmental activist. It also supplies easy-to-follow fun, featuring a "story grandfather" who sets the scene with Seuss-esque flair. The show follows baby Santa to manhood—a passage marked by his battle with Claws, the cowardly polar bear who quickly becomes Santa's best friend. After villains with foreign accents imprison Claws in a coal mine, Santa and his elf parents go on a dangerous mission to save him. I found it all pretty cute, but since there were no kids present on the night I attended, I can't say how well it speaks to the younger set. Through 12/19: Sunday 8 PM, Studio BE Theatre, 3110 N. Sheffield, 773-248-5900, whatisph.com, $5-$12. —Marissa Oberlander
The Santaland Diaries David Sedaris can't hold a candle to Jackie Hoffman, whose Whining in the Windy City: Holiday Edition set the bar for Yuletide nasty last winter. But he's a formidable curmudgeon all the same, and his 1996 tale of working as one of Santa's helpers at Macy's has become a subversive Christmas classic in this solo stage version written by Joe Mantello. Mitchell Fain is something of a classic, too: having performed the show a number of times, he's made it so much his own that it's not always easy to distinguish his innovations and updates, snits and tantrums from what's in the script. Fain is ferociously bitchy and unapologetically inappropriate as Crumpet the anomic elf. It makes a late moment in the piece, when he has momentary contact with kindness, all the more effective. Still, Fain could stand to toughen up even more. When a lady's cell phone went off during the performance I saw, he confiscated it but promised to give it back later. Jackie Hoffman would've made her eat it. Through 12/31: Thu 7:30 PM, Fri-Sat 7:30 and 9:30 PM, Sun 3 and 7 PM, additional shows Tue-Wed 12/21-12/22, 7:30 PM, Thu 12/23, 9:30 PM, no shows 12/24-12/25 or 1/1, Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, 773-975-8150, theaterwit.org, $18-$25. —Tony Adler v
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