Thirteen holiday shows that will delight (or disgust or bore or just entertain) you | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Thirteen holiday shows that will delight (or disgust or bore or just entertain) you

Hell in a Handbag's 20th annual production of Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer is among the yuletide highlights.

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[Recommended] Barney the Elf As a non-Christian, I have no brief for Christmas. But the Other Theatre Company brings a whole chorusful of gold lamé briefs to this oddly compelling holiday tribute. I say "oddly" because the 90-minute show sure as hell doesn't follow the usual path to yuletide cheer. Santa Claus has died, to start, leaving behind a widow and one grown son, Junior, who's expected to follow in dad's footsteps. But Junior is a jerk, bent on introducing efficiencies at the expense of joy. One of his first acts is to fire Barney, whose exuberance makes his fellow elves entirely too happy. That sends Barney to Chicago, where he meets drag queen Zooey and learns a few things about himself, while we get the best-ever explanation of what makes reindeer fly. The whole ensemble is jolly and deft, but Roy Samra's Barney is incandescent, especially when singing a surprisingly unironic "O Holy Night." Dixie Lynn Cartwright's Zooey is endearingly wry. —Tony Adler

Christmas Bingo: It's a Ho-Ho-Holy Night - COURTESY NUNS 4 FUN ENTERTAINMENT
  • Courtesy Nuns 4 Fun Entertainment
  • Christmas Bingo: It's a Ho-Ho-Holy Night

Christmas Bingo: It's a Ho-Ho-Holy Night Vicki Quade may have retired from her official responsibilities within the Catholic church long ago, but she's still Mother Superior of the long-running nun-stalgia genre of theater comedy. Since 2011, the Late Nite Catechism coauthor has been hosting various iterations of bingo upstairs at the Royal George Theatre, where she folds in games, cheeky novelty prizes, crowd work, written stand-up bits, and trivia such as the church's contentious history with the movie Miracle on 34th Street. It's not the most on-point stand-up in Chicago (she's just now getting to the "Die Hard is a Christmas movie" bit), but it is a good-natured back-and-forth between Quade and her mostly secular audience. Does it need the intermission or the Easter vigil-length running time? It does not. —Dan Jakes

Goodman Theatre's A Christmas Carol - LIZ LAUREN
  • Liz Lauren
  • Goodman Theatre's A Christmas Carol

[Recommended] A Christmas Carol This is the 40th annual edition of Goodman Theatre's popular adaptation of Charles Dickens's classic tale, but there's nothing tired or formulaic in Henry Wishcamper's intensely emotional staging of Tom Creamer's durable script. The production—rich in visual and dramatic texture—deftly balances sentiment, comedy, spooky terror, and moral gravity as it retells the familiar but ever-fresh story of a miserly, misanthropic moneylender offered a chance at redemption. The scenic design and special effects are stunning, the music (played live by a quartet of onstage actor-musicians) is alternately melancholy and merry, and the acting by a diverse 26-member ensemble is impeccable. Dickens's theme that the wealthy have an obligation to help provide for the less fortunate is amplified here by some pointedly relevant commentary about religious bigotry. At the center of the show is actor Larry Yando's smart, heartfelt portrayal of Scrooge, the skinflint whose spiritual transformation (prompted by some supernatural intervention) drives the story. It's quite wonderful to watch Yando's Scrooge edge painfully toward the change he finally, fully embraces. —Albert Williams

Mercury Theatre's The Christmas Schooner - BRETT A. BEINER
  • Brett A. Beiner
  • Mercury Theatre's The Christmas Schooner

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

[Recommended] The Customer Is Always Right? Holiday Edition Given this 40-minute offering's semidutiful premise—a couple people tell horror stories from their days working in customer service, then a team of six improvise around those stories—it's gratifying to see just how far off the rails these Annoyance improvisers are willing to take things. A tale of creepy solicitation at a Six Flags antique photograph emporium became a demented journey through Butterworld, a Wisconsin amusement park where Roald Dahl pitched a children's book about a sex giant. A second saga of misguided telemarketing (trying to sell people a spare refrigerator full of meat) somehow turned into five salespeople trying to sell knife sets by pretending to be Jude Law simultaneously. Even with a few hesitant moments, the show zings along delightfully. —Justin Hayford

The Agency Theater Collective's Hellcab - SOMMER AUSTIN
  • Sommer Austin
  • The Agency Theater Collective's Hellcab

[Recommended] Hellcab It used to be said that every Chicago theater actor worth his salt has been in it, but the Agency Theater Collective's 25th-anniversary staging of Will Kern's love letter to the lowly taxi driver is still heartfelt and hilarious, and it doesn't look any worse for the wear. Rusty Schwimmer shines as the nameless cabdriver shepherding the rich, the poor, the lovestruck, and the out-and-out crazy around Chicago a few days before Christmas 1992. She plays the part with equal doses of weariness and wonder, allowing her passengers to star in their brief time in the backseat, as every experienced hack knows to do. Though the play is a collection of unrelated vignettes, by the end it nevertheless captures the patchwork nature of city life. Hellcab had been a mainstay of Profiles Theatre, so it's worth noting that casting a woman in the leading role is a bit of poetic justice, going some ways toward reclaiming it as a holiday classic the whole city can celebrate. Sommer Austin directed. —Dmitry Samarov

American Blues Theater's It's a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • American Blues Theater's It's a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!

[Recommended] It's a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! Bedford Falls is an idyllic small town in this staged "radio play" version of Frank Capra's 1946 movie. Idyllic, at least, until George Bailey—middle-aged president of the local building and loan, faithful husband, and father of four—has a night of the soul so dark that angelic intervention is required to keep him from killing himself. American Blues Theater has made the 90-minute piece an annual holiday staple, complete with commercial jingles and candy cane prizes, without letting it dull out into ritual. I was especially aware this year of the intimate tones Gwendolyn Whiteside's Mary uses toward George at crucial moments, suggesting in a way not even Donna Reed did in the original that the pair aren't just teammates in marriage but lovers. (Whiteside will be replaced by Camille Robinson as of December 20.) Zach Kenney creates his own, entirely believable George, John Mohrlein makes a weary villain of rich old Potter, and the easy command of music director Michael Mahler is quietly astonishing. —Tony Adler

House Theatre of Chicago's The Nutcracker - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Michael Brosilow
  • House Theatre of Chicago's The Nutcracker

[Recommended] The Nutcracker The House Theatre's annual adaptation of the E.T.A. Hoffmann classic presents a "ballet-free" alternative to other Nutcrackers around town. With pointe shoes aside, it's chock-full of drama and surprisingly dark, tracking Clara and her parents' grieving process following the death of her brother Fritz, a soldier. Haley Seda shines as Clara, exploring and inhabiting a complicated range of emotions, from abject sadness to imaginative delight when her toys come to life to save Christmas. Under Chris Matthews's direction, the lighthearted moments are equally compelling and heartwarming, including a Christmas cookie mess in the kitchen and the toys' first experience of snow. And the fun isn't just for the kids, with Uncle Drosselmeyer playing the pivotal role in ensuring Clara's magical fantasy (or is it reality?) reaches its climactic moments with the evil Rat King. —Marissa Oberlander

Q Brothers Christmas Carol, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater - LIZ LAUREN
  • Liz Lauren
  • Q Brothers Christmas Carol, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Q Brothers Christmas Carol The Q Brothers rhyme, dance, scratch, and mug their way through Charles Dickens's yuletide warhorse at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Here Ebenezer Scrooge goes from proclaiming the holiday "Christ-my-ass" to insisting his long-suffering employee Cratchett call him Neezie as he's taught the meaning of the holiday. By turns buoyant and hackneyed, this production can't be accused of ever falling into the maudlin mire this play is so often reduced to, but by trying so hard to connect to a younger audience through hip-hop, dancehall reggae, and the like, the brothers sometimes come off as desperately eager to please. That said, while A Christmas Carol isn't likely to blow anyone's mind at this point, the Q Brothers have done all they can to spread season's greetings in their own way. —Dmitry Samarov

Hell in a Handbag Productions' Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer - RICK GARCIA
  • Rick Garcia
  • 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

This Way Outta Santaland (and Other Xmas Miracles) - CHARLES OSGOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
  • Charles Osgood Photography
  • This Way Outta Santaland (and Other Xmas Miracles)

This Way Outta Santaland (and Other Xmas Miracles) For the past eight years, elfin actor Mitchell Fain has celebrated the winter holidays by starring in Theater Wit's Christmas cash cow The Santaland Diaries, a stage version of David Sedaris's comic memoir about playing one of Santa's helpers at Macy's. This year, Fain has hung up his elf tights (literally—the costume hangs on the wall of the set) to speak in his own voice. This 90-minute program of autobiographical storytelling is alternately campy and sentimental, blissful and bitchy as Fain recounts memories of growing up in a dysfunctional Jewish family in Rhode Island, then embarking on the path that eventually brought him to Chicago. Fain establishes an easy, engaging rapport with the audience as he salutes the women who have inspired him—a family friend, a beloved schoolteacher, Barbra Streisand—as well as the friends and lovers who've encouraged him to, as he puts it, "choose to be brave." His reminiscences are punctuated by cabaret-style vocals from singer Meghan Murphy, who also functions as a sort of talk show-style sidekick. —Albert Williams

'Twas the Night Before Christmas, at Broadway Playhouse - COURTESY EMERALD CITY THEATRE
  • Courtesy Emerald City Theatre
  • 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, at Broadway Playhouse

'Twas the Night Before Christmas Truth be told, caffeinated and focused at 10 AM as I was, I'm not sure I followed all the twists and turns in this 45-minute North Pole adventure from Emerald City Theatre, which features Jewish elves, mischievous mice, and villainous, rapier-wielding capitalist knights, with a couple of hip-hop numbers for good measure. But the youngest kids in attendance didn't seem to mind the abstruse plotting; rather, they were captivated by the cartoonish, friendly-faced, very watchable group of heroes (Kirra Silver, Alejandro Tey, Nora Lise Ulrey) bumbling their way through Santa's workshop. Glimmers of holiday magic shine through the farce, directed by Jacqueline Stone, but parents should take note that the material skews toward the low end of the recommended age range of three to 13. —Dan Jakes

MCL Chicago's Yippie Ki-Yay Merry Christmas: A Die Hard Christmas Musical - MICHAEL SHEPHERD JORDAN
  • Michael Shepherd Jordan
  • MCL Chicago's Yippie Ki-Yay Merry Christmas: A Die Hard Christmas Musical

Yippee Ki-Yay Merry Christmas: A Die Hard Christmas Musical We parody the things we love (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde). Which is why, I suspect, the folks at MCL Chicago decided to create this energetic, relentlessly silly musical send-up of the blockbuster 1988 action movie. Who else but a die-hard Die Hard fan would want to spend so much creative time crafting a show full of hyperfake fight scenes and tongue-in cheek ballads, megaexplosions, and over-the-top dance numbers? The result is a little rough in places: Michael Shepherd Jordan's script too often assumes the audience knows the original by heart, and Alan Metoskie's Bruce Willis is unconvincing, though Gary Fields's Alan Rickman is dead-on. —Jack Helbig

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