December Theater Guide: Full Slate Returns

Oh yeah: 'The Nutcracker' is back at Pittsburgh Ballet, as are many other shows in this year's holiday-time theater schedule. (photo: Rich Sofranko)

Oh yeah: ‘The Nutcracker’ is back at Pittsburgh Ballet, as are many other shows in this year’s holiday-time theater schedule. (photo: Rich Sofranko)

December is a special month in Pittsburgh live theater. Normally it means a slate of traditional holiday shows plus some exciting non-holiday-specific entries. Last year, there was no normal. This year, with Covid precautions in place, the theater community is ratcheting back up to speed. 

In the holiday department, our city’s unique double Dickens returns. You can see Pittsburgh CLO’s A Musical Christmas Carol—which isn’t actually a musical, but is quite good—and/or Pittsburgh Musical Theater’s A Lyrical Christmas Carol, now in its 30th year. Also unique to our town is Pittsburgh Ballet’s spectacular adaptation of The Nutcracker. And to put icing on the fruitcake, if there is such a thing, The Second City sends us a touring comedy revue called It’s a Wild, Wacky, Wonderful Life. 

The non-seasonal shows are particularly attractive this year. Quantum Theatre presents the epic Chimerica, a modern tale of two superpowers. City Theatre, in partnership with CLO, stages the premiere of the musical satire An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake. Both opened at the tail-end of November and continue well into December.  

Productions are previewed here in two categories: Spotlighted shows first and then “Other Shows of Note,” which just might contain what you’re looking for. Such as, three more versions of The Nutcracker, including The Hip Hop Nutcracker. Offerings in each category are listed by run dates. Rick Handler (R.H.) contributed to this Guide.

The choices are plentiful once again, and, venturing to speak for all Pittsburgh theater companies, Entertainment Central wishes you threefold good fortune. Be safe, be kind, be happy! 

Shows in the Entertainment Central Spotlight

CHIMERICA by Lucy Kirkwood. Quantum Theatre. Through Dec. 19. 

Joe (Kyle Haden) spends the night shopping for clues. Tessa (Alison Weisgall) wonders if the mystery is worth solving. They're part power couple and part odd couple in 'Chimerica.'

Joe (Kyle Haden) spends the night shopping for clues. Tessa (Alison Weisgall) wonders if the mystery is worth solving. They’re part power couple and part odd couple in Quantum’s ‘Chimerica.’ Photo: Jason Snyder.

There are many ways to create a play or movie “based” on real events. You can try a mostly faithful reenactment (Apollo 13 set the bar high), or weave a fictional story into a true one (Titanic), or use true events as a framework filled in with imagined dialogue, details, and even music: Hamilton. In the acclaimed Chimerica, British playwright Lucy Kirkwood starts from a dramatic true incident and spins out an imaginary sequel. At the end of the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing in 1989, a man bravely stood in front of a column of army tanks to block their progress. Photos of “Tank Man” by an American journalist became iconic images; Tank Man’s identity and subsequent fate remain unknown to the public. Chimerica imagines the photographer, decades later, setting off on a quest to find the man. Clues lead back and forth between China and America, as the hunt becomes many things: a detective story, a journey through the cultures of the two superpowers, an inquiry into truth-telling. Chimerica premiered in London in 2013, winning the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play. Quantum Theatre presents Chimerica in Pittsburgh, and for more info, read our review of this highly recommended production. At The Maverick Hotel, 120 S. Whitfield St., East Liberty. (M.V.)

AN UNTITLED NEW PLAY BY JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE by Matt Schatz. City Theatre and Pittsburgh CLO. Through Dec. 19.

Somebody has a bright artistic dream but somebody in the upper right has a money-making dream in 'An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake.' The City Theatre/CLO cast (L to R) features Lara Hayhurst, Julianne Avolio, Craig MacDonald, and Melessie Clark. Photo: Kristi Jan Hoover

Somebody has a bright artistic dream but somebody in the upper right has a money-making dream in ‘An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake.’ The City Theatre/CLO cast (L to R) features Lara Hayhurst, Julianne Avolio, Craig MacDonald, and Melessie Clark. Photo: Kristi Jan Hoover

An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake isn’t really by the pop icon. Rather, it is a new musical by writer-composer Matt Schatz, whose comedy The Burdens was a hit at City Theatre in 2019. The musical also skews comical and is said to be about the clash between art and commerce, with Mr. Timberlake serving as an embodiment of the issue. A literary manager at a theater company wants to stage fascinating new works by little-known playwrights. However the chief executive officer believes what the company really needs is a blockbuster by a widely known, sex-symbol-ish, rock/pop superstar. Timberlake in real life claims that “What Goes Around … Comes Around.” We shall see what Matt Schatz’s musical has to say regarding this adage. City Theatre presents An Untitled New Play by Justin Timberlake in partnership with Pittsburgh CLO. The actor/singers are Julianne Avolio, Melessie Clark, Lara Hayhurst, and Craig MacDonald. On City Theatre’s mainstage at 1300 Bingham St., South Side. (M.V.)

IT’S A WILD, WACKY, WONDERFUL LIFE (comedy) by The Second City. Touring production at the O’Reilly Theater. Dec. 8 – 12.

Have you heard of Claudia Martinez? She's making sure you will, front and center, as one of the rising comedy stars who bring us The Second City's 'It's A Wild, Wacky, Wonderful Life.' (Photo: Tim Schmidt)

Have you heard of Claudia Martinez? She’s making sure you will, front and center, as one of the rising comedy stars who bring The Second City’s ‘It’s A Wild, Wacky, Wonderful Life’ to Pittsburgh. (Photo: Tim Schmidt)

The Second City is such a legendary comedy company that journalists are tempted to write awful sentences like “The Second City is second to none.” But it’s true. Evidence can be seen in Pittsburgh when the company sends us its holiday show, It’s a Wild, Wacky, Wonderful Life. Although the title is inspired by the Jimmy Stewart movie, any further resemblance may be extremely altered. The Second City was founded by a group of young theater artists in Chicago in 1959. They named themselves after a satirical book that belittled their hometown, Chicago: The Second City, by New York journalist A.J. Liebling. The founders first won notice with the then-radical idea of turning improv from an actors’ exercise into live performance for an audience. Over the years, The Second City has pioneered other innovations in comedy, spun off TV shows, and helped to launch the careers of famous alumni including Bill Murray, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Steven Colbert, and many more. You might catch a few next-generation stars in It’s a Wild, Wacky, Wonderful Life. The show is presented by Pittsburgh Public Theater and Pittsburgh Cultural Trust at the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District. (M.V.)

THE NUTCRACKER (ballet) by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, choreographed and conceived by Terrence S. Orr. Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. Dec. 10 – 29. 

Amid the dazzling spectacle of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's 'The Nutcracker,' there's also good old good ballet. Shown here are dancers Marisa Grywalski and Lucius Kirst. Photo: Duane Rieder

Amid the dazzling spectacle of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s ‘The Nutcracker,’ there’s also good old good ballet. Shown here are dancers Marisa Grywalski and Lucius Kirst. Photo: Duane Rieder.

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 former 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. (M.V.)

A MUSICAL CHRISTMAS CAROL (play with music) by David H. Bell, from the Dickens story. Pittsburgh CLO. Dec. 17 – 23. 

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)

Mr. Fezziwig is so ready for Christmas he’s almost flipping his wig. The actor is Tim Hartman in Pittsburgh CLO’s ‘A Musical Christmas Carol.’ Photo: Matt Polk.

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 by Broadway and TV veteran Richard Thomas, who years ago was John-Boy on CBS-TV’s “The Waltons” and in recent years has focused on stage acting. Other cast members include Jerreme Rodriguez 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. (M.V.)

A LYRICAL CHRISTMAS CAROL (musical) by Ken and Jane Gargaro, from the Dickens story. Pittsburgh Musical Theater. Dec. 16 – 19. 

It's been a 30-year ride for PMT's 'A Lyrical Christmas Carol,' and this season's show is a special edition. (photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Musical Theater)

It’s been a 30-year ride for PMT’s ‘A Lyrical Christmas Carol,’ and this season’s show is a special edition. (photo courtesy of 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. This year’s 30th anniversary show is a special edition that features up-and-coming young performers from the PMT school, along with selected guest artists. A Lyrical Christmas Carol includes song-and-dance numbers that will send you home in a supercharged holiday spirit. At PMT’s Gargaro Theater, 327 S. Main St., West End. (M.V.) 

Other Shows of Note

MADELINE’S CHRISTMAS (musical) by Jennifer Kirkeby and Shirley Mier, from the picture book. Little Lake Theatre. Through Dec. 5.

We don’t usually highlight theater for kids—or TYA (theater for young audiences), to use the genteel trade term—but hey, this is Madeline. Lots of parents grew up loving the seven-year-old heroine of the Ludwig Bemelmans books, so they too should enjoy Madeline’s Christmas, a musical adaptation of the book of the same title. As in some other stories, there’s an unhappy occurrence but Madeline’s joie de vivre, élan, and je ne sais quoi lead the way to a happy ending. Little Lake Theatre presents Madeline’s Christmas at 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg. (M.V.) 

LAVENDER TERRACE by NaTasha Thompson. New Hazlett CSA series. Dec. 2 – 3. 

The New Hazlett Theater, as part of its CSA (Community Supported Arts) program. is presenting Lavender Terrace. The show is billed as a “multi-media performance that explores Marita Bonner’s The Purple Flower, published in 1928. This new play tells the story of marginalized and oppressed people fighting for the right to have life at its fullest over the last eighty years in America. Lavender Terrace progresses through time, beginning in the late twenties and landing in an obscured but familiar representation of the present day.” The play explores the history of Black life in America, and is by director and playwright NaTasha Thompson. (R.H.) 

ALL IS CALM: THE CHRISTMAS TRUCE OF 1914 by Peter Rothstein. Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center. Dec. 3 – 19. 

On Christmas Day in 1914, amid the horrors of the First World War, a remarkable event occurred at certain points along the Western Front. Soldiers from the opposing German and Allied forces emerged unarmed from their trenches and, on their own, decided to celebrate a one-day truce. They sang together, shared food and drink, exchanged small gifts, and even got up a soccer game. The party didn’t last beyond that day. Orders soon came down to resume the slaughter. But the men’s heartfelt act of grace was long remembered, and it is re-enacted in an acclaimed modern play, Peter Rothstein’s All Is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914. Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center presents All Is Calm at 1 Lincoln Place, Midland. (M.V.) 

THE NUTCRACKER (ballet) by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Lincoln Park Performing Arts Center. Dec. 9 – 12. 

In case any newcomers to our city wondered: 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. (M.V.)

CHRISTMAS BELLES by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jamie Wooten. Little Lake Theatre. Dec. 9 – 18. 

If you invent a fictional town you might as well use it more than once. Lake Wobegon lasted 42 years; Night Vale is at 10 years and counting, and Fayro, Texas is the home of three stage comedies, all featuring the equally fictional Futrelle sisters. Little Lake Theatre marks the holiday season by presenting the second play of the trilogy, Christmas Belles. In this installment, sister Franky is pregnant with twins while Twink is in jail and Honey Raye is determined to save the church Christmas program, because that’s what heroes are for. 500 Lakeside Dr. South, Canonsburg. (M.V.) 

THE NUTCRACKER (ballet) by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Texture Contemporary Ballet with the Westmoreland Symphony Orchestra. Dec. 11 only, 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. 

Yes, you can see The Nutcracker in Greensburg! It has been a Tchaikovsky tradition, and this year, Pittsburgh’s Texture Contemporary Ballet and the Westmoreland Symphony team up to keep the good times going. At Greensburg’s landmark venue The Palace Theatre, 21 W. Otterman St., Greensburg. 

THE HIP HOP NUTCRACKER choreographed by Jennifer Weber. National touring production presented by Trust Arts. Dec. 30 only, 7:30 p.m.  

It arrives in Pittsburgh after Christmas but before New Year’s Eve. The score is Tchaikovsky’s and the story is traditional … but the dancers are professional hip-hop artists, and the MC is Kurtis Blow. The Hip Hop Nutcracker, now in its seventh touring season, has already earned a place as a distinctive American classic. See it here, courtesy of Dentons Cohen & Grigsby Trust Presents, at Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District. 

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