December Theater Preview: Holiday Specials + Year-Round Perennials

This month, Pittsburgh theater fans can see shows that are holiday-themed or not ... or try some of each.

What the Dickens? Yes indeed, it's "A Musical Christmas Carol," performed by Pittsburgh

What the Dickens? Yes indeed, it’s “A Musical Christmas Carol,” performed by Pittsburgh CLO.

December is when the theater schedule in Pittsburgh offers two distinct sets of choices. You can do your culture shopping in Aisle A—which presents a wide selection of holiday-themed shows—or in Aisle B, which is not lesser than A, but has plays that might be staged at any time of the year.

Or better yet, you can mix the two. How about Lord of the Flies to start the month and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical as a chaser? One could also try mixing The Nutcracker, Tchaikovsky’s beloved Christmas ballet, with Our Lady of 121st Street, a black comedy about a naughty nun. (Although you may not wish to bring children to the latter, which makes liberal use of an f-word that isn’t fa-la-la-la-la.)

Alternately, it is possible to plan an all-Dickens month. The lineup includes two musical adaptations of A Christmas Carol and the American premiere of a non-musical version of Oliver Twist. Shows are previewed here in order of their run dates.

LORD OF THE FLIES adapted from William Golding’s novel by Nigel Williams. Through Dec. 5, Carnegie Mellon School of Drama.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is one of those novels you read during your school days and think you’ll never forget, but for many of us, the grisly details fade as time goes by. Now comes a rare chance to see it all brought back. Carnegie Mellon’s School of Drama is performing the 1995 stage adaptation by Nigel Williams, which is highly regarded in the U.K. (where a major new production is currently on tour), though few Americans even know that a theatrical version exists. For the uninitiated: Lord of the Flies is a fictional story about English schoolboys stranded on a remote island. They’re bright young fellows who promptly organize to do what’s needed—forage for food, build shelters, get along together—until dissension and irrational fears turn their civil society into a bloodbath. Philip Chosky Theater in the Purnell Center for the Arts at Carnegie Mellon, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

Siovhan Christensen (foreground) does the chicken thing for Laurie Klatscher (L) and Alec Silberblatt.

Siovhan Christensen (foreground) does the chicken thing for Laurie Klatscher (L) and Alec Silberblatt.

CHICKENS IN THE YARD by Hatch Arts Collective. Through Dec. 6, Quantum Theatre.

Rule of thumb for deciding whether to see a play produced by Quantum Theatre: Do not bother to ask or even wonder what the play is “about,” or what it’s “like.” The value proposition is that it will be something that surprises you and can’t easily be explained in advance. Maybe an experimental work you haven’t heard of, or a play you’ve heard of but never imagined done the Quantum way, or something entirely new and bizarre. Chickens in the Yard is the last kind. According to the play’s promo material, Chickens in the Yard was created for Quantum by a Pittsburgh group called the Hatch Arts Collective. It deals with gay identity, and it’s funny. To borrow from the closing line of John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” that is all ye need to know. At Javo Studios, 5137 Holmes St., Lawrenceville.

A SERVANT TO TWO MASTERS by Carlo Goldoni, adapted by Lee Hall. Through Dec. 6, Pittsburgh Public Theater.

Although the name of the genre sounds highbrow, commedia dell’arte was a wacky form of early slapstick. Popular in Italy and elsewhere from the 1500s to the 1700s, it is seldom performed today, but a commedia-inspired play from the mid-1700s remains part of the repertoire: Carlo Goldoni’s A Servant to Two Masters. See our review for details of the production at Pittsburgh Public Theater. The comedy revolves around a knave who tries to pull off a double-dipping scheme—working full-time for two masters at the same time—and gets embroiled in a larger scheme to reunite two pairs of frustrated lovers. The Public is working from a script translated by the English dramatist Lee Hall, who has updated Goldoni’s Servant somewhat while maintaining the loony nature of the play. At the O’Reilly Theater, 621 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

SMALL ENGINE REPAIR by John Pollono. Through Dec. 6, barebones productions.

John Pollono’s Small Engine Repair is a black-comedy, blue-collar suspense play. If you Google “small engine repair” you’ll get a list of shops that fix lawn mowers, chainsaws, etc., and the play is set in that kind of shop. The owner, Frank, has invited two old buddies (who don’t particularly like one another) to come over at night for a boozy sort of mini-reunion. He’s also invited a preppy college type to bring some Ecstasy. This seems like a recipe for more than enough trouble—but wait, Frank has a hidden agenda. Small Engine Repair has gotten positive reviews in Los Angeles and off-Broadway. Barebones productions is performing the play at a fitting blue-collar venue, the company’s black-box space near the Edgar Thomson Steel Works. 1211 Braddock Ave., Braddock.

OUR LADY OF 121ST STREET by Stephen Adly Guirgis. Dec. 3-13, Point Park Conservatory Theatre.

The title character in the dark comedy Our Lady of 121st Street is a nun. Well, actually, a dead nun. One who drank herself to death. And whose body has been stolen from the funeral parlor, by pranksters who also stole the pants of a mourner. As the plot unfolds from this opening situation, there can be no doubt that you’re watching a Stephen Adly Guirgis play. Guirgis, one of today’s most intriguing American playwrights, has the gift of writing stories that operate on many levels at once. His plays are obscenely irreverent but also deeply spiritual, and his characters do crazy things but they are not merely buffoons; Guirgis conveys their underlying humanity. Our Lady of 121st Street is set in Harlem. It opened off-Broadway in 2003 in a production directed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Point Park University’s Conservatory company presents Our Lady in the Rauh Theatre at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, 222 Craft Ave., Oakland.

Oliver-Twist (1)OLIVER TWIST adapted from Charles Dickens’ novel by Alan Stanford. Dec. 3-19, PICT Classic Theatre.

Are you ready for a play about nasty street gangs and institutionalized child abuse? PICT Classic Theatre’s Oliver Twist is quite different from Oliver!, the well-known musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens novel. Besides not being a musical, the PICT version is darker in tone and truer to Dickens’ original. Oliver Twist was first published in monthly magazine installments from 1837 to 1839, with Dickens using the episodes to depict harsh realities that loomed over lower-class youth of the time: The boy Oliver escapes a brutal workhouse for orphans, but only to be treated cruelly as a household servant, and then he’s hijacked into joining a criminal gang.

PICT’s adaptation was done by Alan Stanford before he took his present post as the company’s Artistic and Executive Director. This Oliver Twist premiered to good reviews at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 2000. Like the novel, the play isn’t all grim. By portraying the young hero’s resilience and the kindness of some people he encounters, it tells a story of hope amid turmoil. Charity Randall Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

Sarah (Sarah Silk) and Sam (Shaun Cameron Hall) try to build a connection in "Scared of Sarah."

Sarah (Sarah Silk) and Sam (Shaun Cameron Hall) try to build a connection in “Scared of Sarah.”

SCARED OF SARAH by Laura Brienza. Dec. 4-19, off the WALL Productions.

Off the WALL Productions is the women’s theater company in our region. The company specializes in new and recent plays written by women, and while some of the plays deal primarily with women’s issues, others have themes that resonate across the genders. Scared of Sarah is about autism. The play also delves into parenthood and sibling relationships, with a setup as follows: A pregnant woman and her husband start to worry that their first child may inherit autism. Their fear is stoked by the woman’s autistic older sister, Sarah, who’s managed to become an independent, employed adult but has always been a stranger in the so-called normal world, very difficult to get close to.

Scared of Sarah is by playwright/actress Laura Brienza. The production is supported in part by The Arts for Autism Foundation of Pittsburgh, and performances include post-show talk-backs with representatives of the group. At Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

A MUSICAL CHRISTMAS CAROL, adapted from the Charles Dickens novella. Dec. 5-21, Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera.

One ought to know how big a deal Dickens’ A Christmas Carol really is. 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. Illustrious actors who’ve played Ebenezer Scrooge on stage and screen include Fredric March, Basil Rathbone, and, memorably, Michael Caine (in The Muppet Christmas Carol, with Kermit and Miss Piggy as Bob and Mrs. Cratchit). In Pittsburgh CLO’s annual production of A Musical Christmas Carol, Scrooge is once again being acted and sung by Tom Atkins. You may remember him as Art Rooney in the one-man show The Chief, so bring your Terrible Towel and enjoy. Byham Theater, 101 6th St., Cultural District.

The night is alive with wonder in PBT's "The Nutcracker."

The night is alive with wonder in PBT’s “The Nutcracker.”

THE NUTCRACKER (ballet) by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa. Dec. 4-27, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre.

It’s the ballet that even non-ballet fans enjoy. The Nutcracker is a holiday staple in cities across the U.S., and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production is a grand one that pulls out all the stops. Choreographed to Tchaikovsky’s music by PBT artistic director Terrence S. Orr, this Nutcracker has a “traditional” feel but includes many custom features you won’t find in other versions. As the story moves from an old-time Christmas party into the realm of fantasy—with the Nutcracker doll coming to life and leading a cast of more than 100 adult and child dancers through a visit to the Land of Enchantment—there are dazzling special dances, amazing magic tricks, and breathtaking stage effects.  Benedum Center, 237 7th St., Cultural District.

Ken Gargaro’s A LYRICAL CHRISTMAS CAROL (musical) by Ken and Jane Gargaro. Dec. 17-20, Pittsburgh Musical Theater.

The centuries have seen countless stage versions of the Christmas tale by Charles Dickens, and though we cannot say where Ken Gargaro’s A Lyrical Christmas Carol ranks among them, the musical is a longtime favorite here in Pittsburgh. Gargaro was founding director of the Pittsburgh Musical Theater school and performance center. He wrote A Lyrical Christmas Carol with wife Jane, premiered it in 1991, and 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. Also as always, the show features some 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.

RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER: THE MUSICAL (adapted from the TV special). Dec. 22-27, national touring company at Heinz Hall.

In 1939, an artist for the Montgomery Ward department-store chain came up with a new holiday promotional item—a children’s book featuring a character called Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Rudolph turned out to be a keeper. He became the subject of treatments in other media, including the hit song we all know … and, in 1964, an animated TV special that is still broadcast annually. Now there’s a stage musical based on the TV story. The touring production of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical visits Pittsburgh with live actors playing the parts of Sam the Snowman, Hermey the Elf, and other such creatures that the television writers added to Rudolph’s saga. If you were charmed by their antics as a child, consider how your children might enjoy the stage spectacular. Rudolph thinks you might even get a kick out of it yourself. Heinz Hall, 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

Photo credits: A Musical Christmas Carol, 2014 production photo by Matt Polk. Chickens in the Yard and Scared of Sarah, by Heather Mull. The Nutcracker, by Rich Sofranko.

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