December Theater Guide: Scrooge, Santa, Nutcracker Star in Historic Sweep by Holiday Shows

Tim Hartman scrupulously supervises the kissing kiddies as Mr. Fezziwig in Pittsburgh CLO's 'A Musical Christmas Carol.' The scene is from last year's production but Hartman, and the play, return this month. (photo: Matt Polk)

Tim Hartman, as Mr. Fezziwig, scrupulously supervises the kissing kiddies in Pittsburgh CLO’s ‘A Musical Christmas Carol.’ The scene is from last year’s production but Hartman, and the play, return this month. (photo: Matt Polk)

It’s not surprising to see a lot of holiday shows on the December theater schedule in Pittsburgh. What is unusual is to see almost nothing but, as happens to be the case this year.  

Why so few non-holiday plays? A couple were canceled or postponed. PICT Classic Theatre,  which sometimes offers variety by staging Dickens adaptations other than A Christmas Carol, didn’t schedule anything in December this time. Add another random occurrence or two, and there you have it.  

The good news is that people like holiday shows—and local companies present many different takes on the familiar themes. Entries this year include Yinzer Scrooged from the Midnight Radio gang, who keep proving that Pittsburgh-ized parodies can be truly funny and not trite. Off the WALL continues its run of The Carols, an offbeat musical about three women doing the Scrooge story under unusual conditions. And City Theatre’s The Santaland Diaries, adapted from the David Sedaris story, exposes the dark underbelly of the Santa Claus industry. 

Some shows become annual traditions. Pittsburgh CLO’s A Musical Christmas Carol isn’t actually a musical, but does deliver a comprehensive treatment of the Dickens novella. Pittsburgh Ballet’s treatment of The Nutcracker is best described by three adjectives: pretty darn spectacular. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh Musical Theater presents A Lyrical Christmas Carol, which is more of a musical than A Musical Christmas Carol, and contains lyrics.  

In the listings below, also look for a rare live performance of Amahl and the Night Visitors—the opera that was once an annual tradition on TV—and a live-radio-style adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life. A play NOT themed to Christmas is the Pulitzer Prize finalist Dance Nation, continuing from November at barebones. Then later comes the touring production of a rock opera about someone whose birthday is celebrated at this time of year: that’s right, Jesus Christ Superstar.  

Shows are previewed in order of run dates in three categories: November continuations, spotlighted shows this month, and others in the region.  

Continuing from November:

LES MISÉRABLES (musical) by Claude-Michel Schönberg, Alain Boublil, and Jean-Marc Natel, from Victor Hugo’s novel. Through Dec. 1, touring company at Benedum Center. 

Red and black! sings Enjorlas (Matt Shingledecker) in the new touring production of 'Les Miz.' (photo: Joan Marcus)

Red and black! sings Enjorlas (Matt Shingledecker) in the new touring production of ‘Les Miz.’ (photo: Joan Marcus)

Which Broadway musical is the GOAT? Many people would favor Les Misérables, though it’s really a French musical, having premiered in Paris in 1980. (An English-language version didn’t make it to Broadway until 1987.) Keep in mind, too, that Les Miz isn’t exactly a perfect musical. In cutting Victor Hugo’s epic novel down to performable size, lead writer Alan Boublil and co-writer Jean-Marc Natel had to perform major surgery, drawing flak from critics who felt that a richly complex story had been oversimplified and sentimentalized. So then, what’s great about Les Miz? It has unforgettable songs and scenes—Fantine’s “I Dreamed a Dream” among them—and while some key aspects of Hugo’s masterpiece have been cut, what remains is powerful. The musical creates an experience that has moved millions. Tickets can still be had for the final Pittsburgh performances of the latest touring production of Les Misérables. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.  

THE CAROLS (musical) by Jennifer Childs and Monica Stephenson. Through Dec. 14, off the WALL productions.

Reunited for theatrical purposes, Elizabeth Boyke, Moira Quigley, and Mandie Russak once more play the title trio in 'The Carols.' (photo: Heather Mull)

Reunited for theatrical purposes, Elizabeth Boyke, Moira Quigley, and Mandie Russak once more play the title trio in ‘The Carols.’ (photo: Heather Mull)

In Pittsburgh theater circles, off the WALL productions is known for unusual new plays written by women and/or featuring women as lead characters. And so it is with the company’s Christmas show. The Carols is a raucous musical comedy by Philadelphia theater artist Jennifer Childs and Pittsburgh-based composer Monica Stephenson. The setting is a New Jersey town in 1944. Three young women are mulling what to do about the town’s annual stage production of A Christmas Carol. The men who could play male roles are away at war, but the gals forge ahead, delivering a Dickens that’s decidedly off the WALL. The Carols played at the company’s Carnegie Stage in 2017 and now it’s back. 25 W. Main St., Carnegie. 

DANCE NATION by Clare Barron. Through Dec. 15, barebones productions.

The 'Dance Nation' gang love to mug for the crowd while they're getting mugged by the pressures of preteen performance anxiety. (photo: Brittany Spinelli)

The ‘Dance Nation’ gang love to mug for the crowd while they’re getting mugged by the pressures of preteen performance anxiety. (photo: Brittany Spinelli)

One may wonder why a serious theater company like barebones productions is doing a wacky play about a team of middle-school girls entering a dance competition. But Clare Barron’s Dance Nation was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama, suggesting there may be method (and even meaning!) behind the looniness. Playwright Barron is fascinated by the teenaged psyche. Her previous play, the bizarre I’ll Never Love Again, had actors in choir robes singing passionate lines from Barron’s own teen diaries. Dance Nation goes psycho-nuclear in a different way. The young women on the dance team—played by adult actors, including some well into adulthood—wrangle with extreme emotions while their drill sergeant of a dance teacher pushes them to win the Boogie Down Grand Prix with a routine about Mohandas Gandhi. See our review for details. 1211 Braddock Ave., Braddock.

Shows in the EC Spotlight for December: 

THE SANTALAND DIARIES by Joe Mantello, from the David Sedaris story. Nov. 29 – Dec. 22, City Theatre. 

This is not the Santa you'll see in 'The Santaland Diaries.' It's a picture of a real fake Santa successfully deceiving real children. 'The Santaland Diaries,' at City Theatre, gives you the behind-the-scenes scoop. (photo: Bailiwick Studios, via CC Share Alike 2.0)

This is not the Santa you’ll see in ‘The Santaland Diaries.’ It’s a picture of a real fake Santa deceiving real children. ‘The Santaland Diaries,’ at City Theatre, gives you the behind-the-scenes scoop. (photo: Bailiwick Studios, via CC Share Alike 2.0)

The past few decades have not been good to Santa Claus. His status as a holiday celebrity has been eroded by trends like modern parenting, which says you shouldn’t tell children that fiction is real; and by the fading away of downtown department stores, which once had magnificent Santa departments. But there is a Santa story that addresses both issues. David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries,” an account of his younger days working as an elf in Macy’s Santaland in New York, brings to life the boots-on-the-ground drama of those great commercial Santa empires. Better yet, Sedaris has admitted that he made up some to all of the material in stories he passed off as true. This means you get real fiction about the reality of the fiction of Santa! And there’s no better place to get it than City Theatre, which presents The Santaland Diaries in an adaptation by Joe Mantello. Shua Potter stars as Crumpet the Elf, a.k.a. Sedaris, with Mrs. Rachel Claus as Herself. 1300 Bingham St., South Side. 

MIDNIGHT RADIO’S YINZER SCROOGED: A PITTSBURGH CHRISTMAS CAROL by Tami Dixon, from the Dickens story. Dec. 5 – 21, Bricolage Production Company. 

Wali Jamal has acted in all 10 plays of August Wilson's Pittsburgh Cycle. He's also portrayed Wilson in the one-man show 'How I Learned What I Learned.' Here, however, Jamal dons a different hat for Midnight Radio's 'Yinzer Scrooged.' (photo: Handerson Gomes)

Wali Jamal has acted in all 10 plays of August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle. He’s also portrayed Wilson in the one-man show ‘How I Learned What I Learned.’ Here, however, Jamal dons a different hat for Midnight Radio’s ‘Yinzer Scrooged.’ (photo: Handerson Gomes)

Perhaps you don’t know how funny the Midnight Radio holiday shows can be. Perhaps you also don’t know that they don’t happen at midnight and are not on the radio. Rather, a Midnight Radio is a live stage play done in the style of an old-time live radio production, which allows a cast of a few to assume the voices and roles of many, without distraction from unneeded details such as costume changes and scenery. This year’s holiday special is Yinzer Scrooged. Adapted from Dickens by playwright Tami Dixon, it has a Pittsburghian aspect along with the Dickensian. The performers are Shammen McCune, who has played Brutus and Caliban (but not at the same time) in all-female Shakespeare productions; Connor McCanlus, experienced at playing the fools in Shakespeare; Wali Jamal, who was the Germanic villain in last year’s Die Hard N’at; and Michael McBurney and Jaime Slavinsky, whose qualities make them ideally suited for Yinzer Scrooged. 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.   

A MUSICAL CHRISTMAS CAROL (play with music) by David H. Bell, from the Dickens story. Dec. 6 – 22, Pittsburgh CLO.

Mark Jacoby is Scrooge in 'A Musical Christmas Carol.' (photo courtesy of the artist)

Mark Jacoby is Scrooge in ‘A Musical Christmas Carol.’ (photo courtesy of the artist)

Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is considered schmaltz by some but 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. Distinguished actors who’ve played Ebenezer Scrooge range from Lionel Barrymore to, 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 this year by Pittsburgh and Broadway veteran Mark Jacoby. Returning regulars include Jeffrey Howell and Lisa Ann Goldsmith as the Cratchits, plus Daniel Krell as both Marley’s ghost and young, very-much-alive Marley. The latter was not in Dickens’ original story but he shows up here because CLO uses an adaptation by American playwright David H. Bell, who added scenes that help to flesh out the narrative nicely. A Musical Christmas Carol plays at the Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District. 

THE NUTCRACKER (ballet) by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, choreographed by Terrence S. Orr. Dec. 6 – 29, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

The Mouse King has the high ground but The Nutcracker has what it takes. After routing the rodent in last year’s PBT production, as shown, The Nutcracker is favored to defend his title this year.

Here comes the ballet that even non-ballet fans enjoy. The Nutcracker provides a big share of annual ticket sales for ballet companies across the nation, and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production is among the grandest. 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 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.

A LYRICAL CHRISTMAS CAROL (musical) by Ken and Jane Gargaro, from the Dickens story. Dec. 12 – 15, Pittsburgh Musical Theater. 

Sometimes, hard times have a happy ending, as they do in 'A Lyrical Christmas Carol.' (photo: Pittsburgh Musical Theater)

Sometimes, hard times have a happy ending, as they do in ‘A Lyrical Christmas Carol.’ (photo: 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. 

YINZER YULETIDE: PITTSBURGH LIGHTS AND LEGENDS (holiday revue) with Rick Sebak and others. Dec. 12 – 22, presented by Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Sometimes, hard times have a happy ending, as they do in 'A Lyrical Christmas Carol.' (photo: Pittsburgh Musical Theater)

Rick Sebak hosts a host of entertaining individuals in ‘Yinzer Yuletide’ at The Public.

Hey folks, how about a Pittsburgh-centric variety show for the holidays? Like, hosted by WQED’s Rick Sebak, and presented under the auspices of Pittsburgh Public Theater? Yinzer Yuletide: Pittsburgh Lights and Legends has a talent lineup that’s both formidable and unorthodox. Along with acclaimed jazz vocalist Etta Cox, you can hear Victory Brinker of Latrobe, the seven-year old opera singer who sings in six languages across four octaves. Singer/actor Lenora Nemetz vocalizes further, while clown O’Ryan Arrowroot clowns around, composer/pianist Nick Stamatakis does the piano thing, and more. At the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.  

AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS (opera) by Gian Carlo Menotti, plus various musical performances. Dec. 20 and 22, Resonance Works.

The Resonance Works production of 'Amahl and the Night Visitors' brings out the humor and high spirits in Menotti's opera. In this scene from a prior year's performance, Kaspar—one of the three kings—shows Amahl the licorice drops he's bearing as a gift from afar. (photo courtesy of Resonance Works)

The Resonance Works production of ‘Amahl and the Night Visitors’ brings out the humor and high spirits in Menotti’s opera. In this scene from a prior year’s performance, Kaspar—one of the three kings—shows Amahl the licorice drops he’s bearing as a gift from afar. (photo courtesy of Resonance Works)

Believe it or not, there was a period in American history when the major TV networks carried operas in mass-market prime time. Television was new then. Network execs figured people would want to see culture’s best brought into their homes. And in 1951, NBC commissioned the first opera made expressly for TV. It was a Christmas opera: Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors. Menotti, an Italian immigrant, wrote the opera in English but was inspired by a childhood memory. Kids in Italy didn’t wait for Santa Claus; they knew that Christmas presents would be brought by the Magi—the legendary three kings, stopping at their house on the way to visit the infant Jesus. So Menotti’s Amahl depicted a boy and his mother in Biblical times, hosting the actual three kings for an overnight sojourn and receiving a miraculous gift in return. The opera was an annual staple on TV until the 1960s, when it was shelved in pursuit of max ratings. But now, in Pittsburgh, it is possible to see a rare live performance. Resonance Works presents Amahl and the Night Visitors on stage at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.  

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (rock opera) by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Dec. 31 – Jan. 5, touring company at Benedum Center.

Pittsburgh will see James DeLisco Beeks as Judas in the new roadshow production of 'Jesus Christ Superstar.' (photo: Matthew Murphy)

Pittsburgh will see James DeLisco Beeks as Judas in the new roadshow production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ (photo: Matthew Murphy)

When Jesus Christ Superstar opened on Broadway in 1971, it marked the converging of several new trends in rock music and theater—a convergence that ran partly through Pittsburgh. One trend was the notion that rock and Christian themes could go together. Christian rock was still a radical idea, as songs like “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” (from California rocker/evangelist Larry Norman) expressed the sentiment but didn’t chart. Meanwhile, The Who’s 1969 Tommy showed that a concept album with a narrative thread could be staged as a “rock opera.” At Carnegie Mellon in 1970, drama student John-Michael Tebelak and his mates presented the initial, on-campus version of Tebelak’s Godspell—more like a standard musical in format, but featuring Jesus himself as a character. And by that time, two young British guys were putting the various pieces together. Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice released Jesus Christ Superstar as a concept album in 1970. Then they fleshed it out for a live U.S. tour. It premiered right here in Pittsburgh—at the now-gone Civic Arena, on July 12, 1971—before a fully developed Broadway production went up later that year.   

Superstar added bold new twists of its own. This rock opera put Judas at the center of a fictionalized drama depicting personal and political tensions among Jesus, his followers, and the authorities of their time. The show was a shocker in ‘71. It won no Tony Awards. But Jesus Christ Superstar has been playing worldwide ever since—and the new touring production comes to Pittsburgh for a run that opens on New Year’s Eve. Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.  

Other Productions in the Region:

FRONT PORCH CABARET 2019 (musical theater revue). Dec. 2 only, 7 p.m., Front Porch Theatricals. 

Front Porch Theatricals, the Pittsburgh company devoted to productions of cutting-edge musicals, presents a cabaret show that’s billed a fundraiser—but don’t shriek and run. The tickets are affordable. And, at Front Porch Cabaret 2019, you’ll see and hear numbers from some very interesting recent Front Porch shows (think Fun Home, Bright Star, etc.), along with preview numbers from the upcoming season. Music director Douglas Levine presides at the Greer Cabaret Theater, 655 Penn Ave., Cultural District.  

THE SECRET LIFE OF GYM GIRLS (solo performance) by Anna Azizzy. Dec. 5 – 6, the artist at the New Hazlett Theater.

If you caught Anna Azizzy’s multimedia performance piece For Retired Gymnast (above), you might think you are ready for Azizzy’s new number, but think again. The artist goes deeper and farther out in The Secret Life of Gym Girls. It’s part of the Community Supported Art Performance Series at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. 

RU EMMONS and CORRINE JASMIN (two-person multidisciplinary performance). Dec. 6 only, 8 p.m., the artists at KST Alloy Studios. 

Movement artist Ru Emmons and interdisciplinary artist Corrine Jasmin team up for a multimedia performance which, they say, will explore “the corners of identity, interconnectedness, and a queer futurism.” Their piece is presented at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater’s Alloy Studios, 5530 Penn Ave., East Liberty. 

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE: A RADIO PLAY by Joe Landry, from the movie. Dec. 6 -15, McKeesport Little Theater. 

As everyone from Glassport to Turtle Creek knows, it’s not really Christmas until you hear from McKeesport Little Theater. This season the McKeesportian thespians present a unique live version of a classic holiday movie. George Bailey materializes on stage in It’s a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play, by the well-known playwright/adapter Joe Landry. 1614 Coursin St., McKeesport.

NOW: PLAYING (dance/multimedia) by The Pillow Project. Dec. 7 – 8, the company at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater.  

For 15 years, the experimental movement-theater company The Pillow Project has been performing its “Postjazz” pieces in Pittsburgh and around the world. If you haven’t seen them, you are missing something special, and now’s the time to stop missing. The company performs a new piece called Now: Playing, which mixes improvised dance and movement with timed-and-pulsed sequences of projected light and video. Kelly Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. 

THE NUTCRACKER (ballet) by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Dec. 12 – 15, Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center. 

The Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center is not related to the Chicago zoo of the same name. It is a regional hub of arts activity in Midland, just down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh, and an annual production of Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker is a highlight there. One Lincoln Place, Midland.  

THE NUTCRACKER (ballet) by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Dec. 14 – 15, Laurel Ballet Performing Company. 

Want to see The Nutcracker danced in Greensburg? It is not only possible but a certainty, thanks to Laurel Ballet, which performs the classic at The Palace Theatre. 21 W. Otterman St., Greensburg. 

THE ILLUSIONISTS: MAGIC OF THE HOLIDAYS (multiple magicians). Dec. 26 – 29, touring show at Heinz Hall. 

After the excesses of Christmas, one way to prepare for New Year's Eve is to lie on a bed of nails while a friend with a sledgehammer breaks a concrete block over your stomach, but this is risky, so perhaps just watch the pros do it in 'The Illusionists: Magic of the Holidays.' (photo courtesy of The Illusionists)

After the excesses of Christmas, one way to prepare for New Year’s Eve is to lie on a bed of nails while a friend with a sledgehammer breaks a concrete block over your stomach, but this is risky, so perhaps just watch the pros do it in ‘The Illusionists: Magic of the Holidays.’ (photo courtesy of The Illusionists)

By definition, it’s hard to find anything more magical than magic. A company of expert practitioners is touring North America. Their show is called The Illusionists: Live from Broadway, but for a late-December visit to Pittsburgh, they have performed sleight of hand to rebrand it The Illusionists: Magic of the Holidays. Heinz Hall, 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District. 

A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS LIVE ON STAGE adapted from Charles M. Schulz’s story. Dec. 28 only, 5 and 7 p.m., touring company at the Byham Theater. 

You can cozy up to the electronic warmth of your TV and watch animated reruns of Charlie, Lucy, and company in the annual broadcast of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”—or, you can boogie on down to the Byham. That is where actual persons intend to perform the touring production of A Charlie Brown Christmas Live on Stage. Charles M. Schulz would approve, which we know, because his estate did. Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District. 

Mike Vargo, a Pittsburgh-based freelance writer, covers theater for Entertainment Central.