December Theater Guide: It’s That Time Again

Mr. Fezziwig is so ready he's almost flipping his wig. The actor is Tim Hartman in Pittsburgh CLO's 'A Musical Christmas Carol,' one of many holiday shows on the menu. (photo courtesy of CLO)

Mr. Fezziwig is so ready he’s almost flipping his wig. The actor is Tim Hartman in Pittsburgh CLO’s ‘A Musical Christmas Carol,’ one of many holiday shows on the menu. (photo: Matt Polk)

December is the month on the Pittsburgh theater scene when ticket shoppers are faced with tough choices. Which adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol do you want to see: A Musical Christmas Carol (at Pittsburgh CLO), A Lyrical Christmas Carol (Pittsburgh Musical Theater), or the new non-musical, one-man-show version in which Scrooge tells all (off the WALL productions)?

Would you prefer Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s traditional production of The Nutcracker or the touring production of The Hip-Hop Nutcracker? How about Elf: The Musical versus Harry Connick, Jr.’s The Happy Elf? And which of three—count ’em, three—community theater productions of A Christmas Story: The Musical will you choose?

If you wish to keep it simple, you could concede the rather dubious point that Die Hard is a Christmas movie and see the parody titled Die Hard N’at, a creation of the Midnight Radio gang at Bricolage.

Finally, if you’d like to catch a show that isn’t remotely holiday-themed, you can—especially if you go early in the month. Choices range from the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Sweat (at The Public) to a couple of intriguing one-person bio-plays: Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin and Malik Yoba’s autobiographical Harlem to Hollywood. 

Offerings are previewed in order of their run dates, in three categories: carryovers from November, new spotlighted shows, and other suggested productions. Christopher Maggio and Rick Handler contributed to this Guide.

Continuing from November:

IN DEFENSE OF GRAVITY (modern dance + poetry) by the company, f/t Jimmy Cvetic’s poetry. Through Dec. 2, Attack Theatre.

The piece is titled 'In Defense of Gravity,' though Attack Theatre's dancers often defy the Newtonian law. (photo: Mark Simpson Photography)

The piece is titled ‘In Defense of Gravity,’ though Attack Theatre’s dancers often defy the Newtonian law. (photo: Mark Simpson Photography)

Attack Theatre creates striking original works of dance through unusual collaborations. Laws of Attraction, devised with input from science experts, applied the laws of physics to human relationships. Now the Attack dancers return with In Defense of Gravity, which sounds like another physics thing but isn’t. The feature-length piece was inspired by—and uses samples from—the poetry of Jimmy Cvetic, who after a career as a police detective won renown for his gritty poems with touching titles such as “You Almost Bite a Guy’s Nose Off Because He Tries to Kill You and a Whore Jumps on Your Back and You Think of the Big Whorehouse in the Sky and That Ain’t Bragging.” So then, why the title In Defense of Gravity? Attack Theatre says the piece explores how we respond to life’s “heavy” moments. With vocalist Anqwenique Wingfield and musicians Jeff Berman, Ben Brosche, and Ben Opie. In Pittsburgh Opera’s George R. White Studio, 2425 Liberty Ave., Strip District. (MV)

THE RAY WERNER PLAY FESTIVAL (several plays by Werner, staged separately). Through Dec. 2, Pittsburgh Playwrights.

It’s been all Ray Werner, all the time, recently at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theater Company and that’s a good thing. Werner, a former advertising agency owner, has become a noted Pittsburgh playwright. And The Ray Werner Play Festival has presented a series of his works. Remaining on the schedule as the calendar takes us into a new month are Our Lady of Drubbleduffy (“In the far west of Ireland, a miracle of the Blessed Mother backfires”) on Saturday and Sunday, December 1-2, and a program of two one-acts—”The Stuttering Pig” and “Christmas Tassel Bell”—on November  30 plus the December 1-2 weekend. Pittsburgh Playwrights, 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District. (RH).

CORAM BOY by Helen Edmundson, from Jamila Gavin’s novel. Through Dec. 2, Point Park Conservatory Theatre.

Coram Hospital in 1753: Unwanted babies were sometimes left in a basket at the gate, and the modern play 'Coram Boy' tells of adventures and perils that loomed. (Engraving: Louis-Pierre Boitard, courtesy of Wellcome Library, London)

Coram Hospital in 1753: Unwanted babies were sometimes left in a basket at the gate, and the modern play ‘Coram Boy’ tells of adventures and perils that loomed. (Engraving: Louis-Pierre Boitard, courtesy of Wellcome Library, London, via Creative Commons CC 4.0)

Point Park University’s Conservatory Theatre stages a gripping drama based on incidents from British history. The Foundling Hospital of London—a.k.a. Coram Hospital, after patron Thomas Coram—was built in the 1700s to house unwanted children, often those of unwed mothers. The charity did good work but was plagued by staff cruelty, and by freelance scammers who would promise to take a woman’s child to Coram but did not. Helen Edmundson’s play Coram Boy, adapted from the Jamila Gavin novel, interweaves these dark elements with tales of hope. At the new Pittsburgh Playhouse, 350 Forbes Ave., Downtown. (MV)

SWEAT by Lynn Nottage. Through Dec. 9, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Blue-sky visions vs. blue-collar realities: Cynthia (Tracey Conyer Lee, center) expounds on the situation while Stan (Tony Bingham) and Tracey (Amy Landis) listen in 'Sweat.' Photo: courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Blue-sky visions vs. blue-collar realities: Cynthia (Tracey Conyer Lee, center) expounds on the situation while Stan (Tony Bingham) and Tracey (Amy Landis) listen in ‘Sweat.’ Photo: courtesy of Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Set in nearby Reading, Pennsylvania, Sweat tells the story of nine friends. The play begins in 2008 when two men meet their parole officer. The next scene begins during happier times in a bar in 2000. The bar’s patrons work at Olstead’s Steel Tubing. The audience observes what happens over the next eight years, including layoffs and the fraught renegotiation of union contracts. It’s set over a decade ago, but the play’s themes remain timely. Part of that might be because playwright Lynn Nottage interviewed manufacturing employees in Reading as part of her research. And if all of that wasn’t enough, the play won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2017. Nottage is the only woman so far to have won the drama prize twice; the other time was for Ruined in 2009. Pittsburgh Public Theater performs Sweat. Justin Emeka directs. O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (CM)

THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP by Alan Stanford, from the Dickens novel. Through Dec. 15, PICT Classic Theatre.

Can Little Nell escape the clutches of evil Quilp? Martin Giles is the mad moneylender and Caroline Lucas is the heart-rending heroine in this stage version of 'The Old Curiosity Shop.' (photo: Keith A. Truax)

Can Little Nell escape the clutches of evil Quilp? Martin Giles is the mad moneylender and Caroline Lucas is the heart-rending heroine in this stage version of ‘The Old Curiosity Shop.’ (photo: Keith A. Truax)

The story: A virtuous orphan girl lives with her grandfather, a London shopkeeper with an unfortunate gambling habit. When he loses big—on borrowed money, no less—Little Nell and grandpa flee to the countryside, where they encounter characters both colorful and frightening, while various persons with various intentions seek the fugitive pair. Charles Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop was published in installments during 1840-41. It had readers waiting anxiously for each episode, wondering What’s going to happen to Little Nell? Now Alan Stanford, artistic director of PICT Classic Theatre, has adapted The Old Curiosity Shop for the stage. For details on the dramatization of this early Victorian saga, see our review. PICT performs the play in the Fred Rogers Studio at WQED, 4802 Fifth Ave., Oakland. (MV)

A CHRISTMAS CAROL (new one-person play) by Mark Coffin and Heidi Mueller Smith, from the Dickens novella. Through Dec. 15, off the WALL productions.

The year is 1843. Charles Dickens is hard at work on a book he hopes will secure his reputation forever: the ponderous satirical novel Martin Chuzzlewit. In between writing serialized installments, he squeezes out a little novella just in time for holiday book sales. And wouldn’t you know, A Christmas Carol becomes the story that wins hearts for centuries worldwide, even in countries that don’t celebrate Christmas. There have been many adaptations and many Scrooges. Lionel Barrymore played the role on radio, in voice only; Marcel Marceau played it with no voice, in mime only. Now Pittsburgh-area audiences can see the world premiere of a new version featuring Scrooge only. Theater artists Mark Coffin and Heidi Mueller Smith have adapted A Christmas Carol as a one-person play in which Scrooge both narrates and acts the story, reflecting on life in London of the 1800s and his personal transformation from miserly greed to benevolence. The show includes multimedia. Coffin is Scrooge and Mueller Smith directs for off the WALL productions. At Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie. (MV)

Shows in the EC Spotlight for December:

THE NUTCRACKER (ballet) by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, with choreography by Terrence S. Orr. Through Dec. 27, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

Previous productions of 'The Nutcracker' have sparkled and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre vows to do it again this year. (photo: Rich Sofranko)

Previous productions of ‘The Nutcracker’ have sparkled and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre vows to do it again this year. (photo: Rich Sofranko)

Here comes the ballet that even non-ballet fans enjoy. The Nutcracker provides a huge share of annual ticket sales for ballet companies across the nation, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production is among the grandest of all. It was developed by PBT artistic director Terrence S. Orr, who drew in part from the original 1892 choreography by Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov. But Orr also studied many contemporary versions, then teamed with his PBT colleagues to create a one-of-a-kind synthesis of classical ballet, modern artistry, and stunning stagecraft. (See the background story here.) This Nutcracker is set at an old-time Christmas party in Pittsburgh at the turn of the last century. Then, as we move into the realm of fantasy—with the Nutcracker doll coming to life and leading a cast of adult and child dancers through a visit to the Land of Enchantment—there are dazzling special dances, amazing magic tricks, and breathtaking stage effects. The music of course is by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (MV)

THE SEAGULL by Anton Chekhov. Dec. 5-9, Duquesne University Red Masquers.

When Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull premiered in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1896, it met with a stunning reception. The opening-night audience booed so loud and long that Chekhov—primarily known as a fiction writer at the time—vowed to give up playwriting and promptly left town. Not so fast, Anton. The rest of the run turned out to be a success. A couple of years later the great director Stanislavski restaged the play in Moscow, to wild acclaim, and the rest is history. The Seagull, a satirical dark comedy about a bunch of artsy-literary types and their tangled love affairs, is now considered one of the plays that helped to launch modern theater. Duquesne University’s Red Masquers perform The Seagull at Genesius Theater on the Duquesne campus, Seitz St. at Locust St., Uptown. (MV)

DIE HARD N’AT by Midnight Radio. Dec. 6-22, Bricolage Production Company.

In addition to being the movie that made Bruce Willis a star, and made Alan Rickman a rare double contender for creepiest villain and sexiest man in cinema, Die Hard is frequently rated as one of the all-time best Christmas movies. The fact that it features explosives coming down an elevator shaft rather than Santa down a chimney doesn’t seem to matter. The obscenely violent action begins when Rickman and his criminal gang invade an office Christmas party, and therefore Die Hard qualifies. Therefore also, Bricolage Production Company’s Midnight Radio team is honoring the season of peace on Earth and good will to all with an original adaptation called Die Hard N’at. The title suggests parody. Apparently, the plot concerns a party troubled by jagoffs. Midnight Radio performances are neither at midnight nor on radio; they are staged with live audiences. The last one—a quite serious production of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein—was very well received. Tickets to Die Hard N’at could be the perfect holiday gift for someone you love. 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District. (MV)

A MUSICAL CHRISTMAS CAROL by David H. Bell, from Dickens’ story. Dec. 7-23, Pittsburgh CLO.

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is considered schmaltz by some and high art by many others. In Japan, the novella has been viewed as one of the great works of English literature—“possibly in a league with Hamlet,” as one Japanese scholar wrote. Famous actors who’ve played Ebenezer Scrooge range from Basil Rathbone to Jim Carrey, and, memorably, Michael Caine in The Muppet Christmas Carol, with Kermit and Miss Piggy as Bob and Mrs. Cratchit. In Pittsburgh CLO’s production of A Musical Christmas Carol, Scrooge is played by Richard Thomas, who was John-Boy in TV’s “The Waltons” and has become a distinguished stage actor on Broadway and elsewhere. Pittsburgh-based cast members include Jeffrey Howell and Lisa Ann Goldsmith as the Cratchits, and Allison Cahill as the Ghost of Christmas Past. The adaptation is by David H. Bell, best known for Hot Mikado, the jazzed-up remake of The Mikado. There’s no bebop in A Musical Christmas Carol, but Bell has added some scenes that help to fill out Dickens’ original story nicely. Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District. (MV)

THE HIP-HOP NUTCRACKER (dance) by Jennifer Weber and Mike Fitelson. Dec. 11-12, national touring company at Benedum Center.

Flash back to 1983 and the movie Flashdance, filmed in Pittsburgh: An aspiring young dancer nails her audition at a classical dance academy by incorporating b-boy moves she’s seen on the street. Fantasy predicts reality. Now our city is visited by the touring production of The Hip-Hop Nutcracker.  Here we have real, world-class b-boys and b-girls dancing the popular Christmas tale to the beats of Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet music, augmented by new sounds from DJ Boo. The show was conceived by Mike Fitelson, executive producer at the United Palace theater in New York’s Washington Heights, and choreographer Jennifer Weber of Brooklyn-based Decadancetheatre. Dancing the role of The Nutcracker is Josue Figueroa (a.k.a. Beastmode) of the breaking crews MIND180 and Skill Methodz. Guest MC is Kurtis Blow. The Hip-Hop Nutcracker might be the season’s sleeper hit, so if you’re hip, hop on some good seats before they’re gone. Part of the Cohen and Grigsby Trust Presents Series at Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (MV)

A MAGICAL CIRQUE CHRISTMAS (musical and stunt theater) from Red Tail Live! Dec. 13 only, 7:30 p.m., touring company at Benedum Center.

According to dates estimated by Bible scholars, it has been over 2200 years since the unknown author of Ecclesiastes wrote “there is nothing new under the sun.” But that has never stopped anyone from trying. Especially not in the entertainment industries, where the perennial demand for new Christmastime offerings has, ironically, produced multitudes of variations on familiar themes. Some are heartwarming, such as adaptations of A Christmas Carol. Some are disconcerting, such as Bob Dylan’s “Must Be Santa.” And at least one combines circus acts with Christmas music. That would be A Magical Cirque Christmas, which is not from Cirque du Soleil, but from the Fort Worth, Texas company Red Tail Entertainment. The video shows a sampling of the circus acts. The hoop used in one portion is called a Cyr Wheel, after Daniel Cyr of Montreal’s Cirque Éloize, so if you attend, dazzle your companion with this arcane bit of knowledge. The performers in A Magical Cirque Christmas will handle the rest of the dazzling. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. (MV)

A LYRICAL CHRISTMAS CAROL (musical) by Ken and Jane Gargaro, from Dickens’ story. Dec. 13-16, Pittsburgh Musical Theater.

The centuries have seen countless stage versions of the Christmas tale by Charles Dickens, and a longtime standard here in Pittsburgh is Ken and Jane Gargaro’s A Lyrical Christmas Carol. Ken Gargaro was founding director of the Pittsburgh Musical Theater school and performance center. He wrote A Lyrical Christmas Carol with Jane and premiered the show in 1991. It has been delighting local audiences ever since. As always, the cast includes accomplished adult performers along with outstanding younger folks from the PMT school. The show features song-and-dance numbers that’ll send you home from the New Hazlett Theater in a supercharged holiday spirit. 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. (MV)

HERSHEY FELDER AS IRVING BERLIN (one-person bio-play). Dec. 19-30, presented by Pittsburgh Public Theater.

In 'Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,' pianist and theater artist Felder brings to life a titan of American popular music. (photo courtesy of Mr. Felder)

In ‘Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin,’ pianist and theater artist Felder brings to life a titan of American popular music. (photo courtesy of Mr. Felder)

It’s hard to believe that the sentimental songwriter of “White Christmas” and the sly dude who wrote “Puttin’ on the Ritz” were one and the same person, but they were. Irving Berlin (1888-1989) even managed to live to 101. Along the way, he also: emigrated from what is now Belarus to New York, learned English, worked his way up from street-corner newsboy to Broadway sensation, and wrote about 1500 other songs, from “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” to “God Bless America.” Actor/pianist Hershey Felder re-creates the life and music of this extraordinary man in his one-man show titled, simply, Hershey Felder as Irving BerlinPresented by Pittsburgh Public Theater at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (MV)

ELF: THE MUSICAL by Matthew Sklar, Chad Beguelin, Bob Martin, and Thomas Meehan, from the movie. Dec. 26-30, touring company at Heinz Hall.

Two big differences between the touring production of Elf: The Musical and the movie it’s based on: The musical has a guy named Eric Williams playing the human mistakenly raised as an elf in Santa’s workshop. And it’s at Heinz Hall. And Eric Williams and his friends can really sing! That’s three but the attribute is important when you have songs like “Sparklejollytwinklejingley,” which is hard to type on a keyboard let alone sing, and “Nobody Cares About Santa,” which isn’t true, but is part of the fun. Visitors are encouraged to embrace their inner Elf. And then go and embrace someone else’s, as long as it’s done appropriately! 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (MV)

Other Suggested Productions:

A/B MACHINES by Philip Gates, “adapted from the work of Andy Warhol.” Sample quotation from the 1977 book The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again): “They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.” Time has passed, and now Philip Gates, a Directing Fellow at Carnegie Mellon, premieres his new Warhol-inspired play A/B Machines. It features three performers competing ferociously for attention while apparently ignoring another Warhol saying: “I think everybody should like everybody.” Through Dec. 1 in the Helen Wayne Rauh Theater at Carnegie Mellon, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland. (MV)

THE DAY THE DEVIL DIED—HALLELUJAH ANYHOW by Reverend Earl Baldwin. The creator of this show, Rev. Earl Baldwin, formerly operated the Hallelujah Anyhow Gospel Talk Barbershop on the North Side. The shop is now closed but word has it that the Reverend has some serious chops when it comes to performing. His subject, according to promotional material, is what happens “when the devil sends you what he heard you praying for.” Are you ready? The Day the Devil Died is Dec. 1 and Dec. 1 only, 6 p.m., at the August Wilson Center. 980 Liberty Ave., Cultural District. (MV)

CAROL OF THE KING, THE IRISH DANCE CHRISTMAS SPECTACULAR by Two Step Productions. This touring song-and-dance show dramatizes a mythical tale wherein the legendary King Solomon, his loving companion Brighid, and other good lads and lassies battle the grim forces of The Frost to restore the spirit of Christmas to the land. The show is led by Justin Boros, former lead dancer in Michael Flatley’s Lord of the Dance. The fiddle music in Carol of the King is live and guaranteed lively. Dec. 2 only, 4 p.m. at The Palace Theatre, 21 W. Otterman St., Greensburg. (MV)

HARRY CONNICK, JR.’S THE HAPPY ELF. As everyone from Glassport to Turtle Creek knows, it’s not really Christmas until you hear from McKeesport Little Theater. And this season, the McKeesportian thespians present Harry Connick, Jr.’s The Happy Elf, in which a cool cat called Eubie the Elf brings Christmas JAZZ to Bluesvile. Dec. 7-16 at 1614 Coursin St., McKeesport. (MV)

HARLEM TO HOLLYWOOD by Malik Yoba. Native New Yorker Malik Yoba is an authority on the journey from Harlem to Hollywood, having done it himself. Along with acting in over 25 movies, he has been Detective J.C. Williams in Fox TV’s “New York Undercover,” Ice in “Arrested Development,’ and … you get the picture. In his touring one-man show, you get Yoba live, describing and re-enacting the trip from the inside out. Dec. 8 only, 8 p.m., at the August Wilson Center. 980 Liberty Ave., Cultural District. (MV)

THE NUTCRACKER (ballet) by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Want to see The Nutcracker danced in Greensburg? It is not only possible but a certainty, thanks to Laurel Ballet Company, which performs the classic Dec. 8-9 at The Palace Theatre. 21 W. Otterman St., Greensburg. (MV)

A CHRISTMAS STORY: THE MUSICAL by Benj Pasek, Justin Paul, and Joseph Robinette, adapted from the movie.

Perhaps you’ve watched the movie A Christmas Story on TV more times than is healthy. Or perhaps you never heard of it. Either way, you have the perfect excuse to go and see A Christmas Story: The Musical, the live adaptation of the story in which Ralphie craves a BB gun despite dire warnings from mom and Santa, dad receives a leg lamp clad in a fishnet stocking, and other such doings converge to make a typical all-American Christmas in the nonexistent town of Hohman, Indiana. The musical is so danged popular that it’s being presented by three community theater companies in our area: by Stage Right of Greensburg, Dec. 7-9 at The Lamp Theatre, 222 Main St., Irwin. Then by Actors and Artists of Fayette County, Dec. 13-16 at Geyer Performing Arts Center, 111 Pittsburgh St., Scottdale. And now through Dec. 16 by Little Lake Theatre. (All Little Lake performances are sold out, so this is for intrepid ticket-finders.) 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg. (MV)

And long-running:

GAME ON (cabaret musical) by Marcus Stevens and David Dabbon. Through Jan. 27, Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret.

This holiday season offers Pittsburghers a chance to attend the world-premiere run of a musical: Game On. Prime time game shows inspired Game On. The musical stars three contestants playing for a $10 million jackpot during a live taping in front of a studio audience. Marcus Stevens—who acted in the Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret’s inaugural production, Forever Plaid—wrote the book and lyrics. David Dabbon, who arranged the dancing for the new Beetlejuice Broadway musical, wrote the music and came up with the concept. Pittsburgh CLO Cabaret performs Game On. Greer Cabaret Theater, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (CM)

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater for Entertainment Central. Christopher Maggio is the company’s designated Renaissance Man. Rick Handler is executive producer of Entertainment Central.