From Scrooge to the Snow Queen: eight stage shows for the holidays | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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From Scrooge to the Snow Queen: eight stage shows for the holidays

The Goodman's A Christmas Carol leads the seasonal onslaught.

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Like Hamilton cast members on Mike Pence, holiday shows are swarming Chicago­-area theaters. We review eight of them here, and there are more to come next week. —Tony Adler

A Charlie Brown Christmas Eric Schaeffer's stage adaptation of the iconic 1965 animated Peanuts special for kids' company Emerald City Theatre amounts to little beyond transcribing the dialogue verbatim, with little regard for how it might play live onstage. Turns out, awfully clumsily. Director Ann Filmer's cheery cast struggle to find the sort of timing that might give 45 minutes of well-worn bits and halfhearted dance numbers a sense of momentum. The de rigueur holiday sing-along at the end is fun, although a rousing "Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah" is bizarre after the show's hyper-Christian message. —Justin Hayford

A Christmas Carol - LIZ LAUREN
  • Liz Lauren
  • A Christmas Carol

[Recommended] A Christmas Carol As usual, the Goodman pulls out all the stops for its annual spectacle-filled production of Charles Dickens's classic, overwhelming our senses with amazing sets, gorgeous costumes, and eye-popping lighting effects, and ultimately leaving us utterly besotted with holiday spirit. This year's edition, directed by Henry Wishcamper and once again starring Larry Yando as Scrooge, is slick, tight, and nearly flawless, capturing the look and feel of Victorian England while also reflecting the diversity of contemporary Chicago. Yes, the production's message is as relentlessly indulgent and materialistic as our own culture's celebration of the holiday (Eat! Drink! Shop!), and there's more than a touch of magical thinking in the protagonist's awakening. But you'd have to be a Grinch to complain. —Jack Helbig

It's Christmas, Goddamnit! It's Christmas at the Jameses' house, and things couldn't be worse. Dad and the next-door neighbor are newly, secretly married. Their adult children—all basket cases—are so far none the wiser, but it's only a matter of time before the secret's out and everyone's at each other's throats. None of it is pretty. Going on four years now, the Annoyance Theatre's annual holiday fracas is so rude, crude, and over-the-top that even Annoyance fans may be offended. On the positive side, the cast isn't selling it as anything other than it is; this is straight-up family dysfunction and black (and blue) humor, grisly, obscene, and full of shock value. The downside is that it all wears thin pretty quickly, and the payoff is about as satisfying as finding a lump of coal in your stocking.
—Matt de la Peña

American Blues Theater's It's a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago - JOHNNY KNIGHT
  • Johnny Knight
  • American Blues Theater's It's a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago

[Recommended] It's a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago A number of holiday favorites in Chicago have become tradition, families returning year after year for anodyne entertainment. This mainstay from American Blues Theater was new to me: a live radio-style version of Frank Capra's beloved 1946 movie starring Jimmy Stewart. The conceit allows for a simple but supple and music-filled staging by director Gwendolyn Whiteside that makes the most of the actors' incredible vocal ranges. Sure, the show's a bit heavy on nostalgia and sentiment, but that's what most want this time of year, and they're given a counterweight by the story itself—it's the darkness in this tale of a man on the verge of suicide saved by an angel who helps him imagine what life would be without him that renders the joy real.
—Suzanne Scanlon

Northlight Theatre's Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley - CHARLES OSGOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Charles Osgood Photography
  • Northlight Theatre's Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley

Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley Written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, this world premiere from Northlight Theatre picks up two years after the end of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice and centers on another Bennet sister, bookish and solitary Mary, played with caustic wit by a sharp Emily Berman. Get past the uneven English accents and the very audacity of a Austen sequel and it's a sweet, romantic holiday story in which two intellectuals move from traveling the world via maps and a magnifying glass into the unexpected adventure of falling in love. Erik Hellman is a bumblingly appropriate foil for Mary as Arthur de Bourgh (son of the novel's snobbish Lady Catherine), who pulls out a notebook of canned responses whenever nervous and at a loss for words. —Marissa Oberlander

Ed Jones as Rip Nelson - RICK AGUILAR STUDIOS
  • Rick Aguilar Studios
  • Ed Jones as Rip Nelson

The Rip Nelson Holiday Spectacular Hell in a Handbag leans hard on its tried-and-true camp tropes in this drag parody of an early-80s variety show. A recovering alcoholic television host gets a second chance at glory a decade or so too late when he scores his former rival's time slot. Steve Love's production of David Cerda's comedy makes solid use of a vocally formidable ensemble in frequent, often unironic musical numbers. It's more questionable whether the jokes built on vintage celebrities are enough to sustain the rest for an hour and a half—the erstwhile Bruce Jenner is the target of some particularly groan-worthy material—but David Lipschutz's off-kilter, hilariously sinister turn as magician Doug Henning is hilarious every moment he's onstage. —Dan Jakes

Piccolo Theatre's The Snow Queen
  • Piccolo Theatre's The Snow Queen

The Snow Queen Not to be confused with Michael Barrow Smith's frequently staged musical adaption, this 2013 holiday panto takes an even sillier, more playful approach to Hans Christian Andersen's fable about a young girl on a mission to rescue her friend from a wicked sorceress. As with a lot of theater for young audiences, it's not clear which age group it's best suited for—older kids at the performance I attended didn't seem particularly amused by the bumbling pratfalls and shtick, and the younger ones had little reaction to the onslaught of malapropisms, wacky accents, and puns. A handful of original musical moments by Jessica Puller and Arne Parrott create some theatrical whimsy, but it's not until late in the 90 minutes that much gets visually interesting or adventurous. —Dan Jakes

[Recommended] Winter Stories Under the Gun has long had a knack for crafty conceptual comedy: making up TED Talks from slides performers have never seen, improvising scenes based on random excerpts from D-list celebrity autobiographies, reading soft-core porn scripts cold. This time around the concept feels standard-issue. An invited "monologist" tells a holiday-related story (on the night I attended, it was about a seven-year-old non-Jewish girl's quest to authentically celebrate Hanukkah), and then a group of improvisers invent an hour's worth of scenes tangentially related to the story. I suppose I should be disappointed, but as usual the UTG ensemble delivers inventive, well-outside-the-box work that more than compensates. I could have spent the entire hour watching the scene about the pusher selling dreidels to desperate Hanukkah junkies. —Justin Hayford

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