December Theater Preview: Plays for All Seasons

Whether your preference is naughty or nice, Pittsburgh theater companies have a variety of attractions on stage in December. At the naughty end of the scale is OR, a fictional comedy about an actual woman who was both a distinguished writer and an undercover agent for one of England’s naughtiest kings.

In the family-friendly department are not one but two musical versions of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Pittsburgh Ballet’s The Nutcracker. Three more seasonal plays are on tap as well: Christmas Star, the Kwanzaa-themed Ubuntu Holiday, and a live adaptation of It’s a Wonderful Life. Brewing in the experimental aisle is a one-night-only “performance action,” Translations. For those who prefer Dickens without the Ghosts of Christmas, we have Great Expectations. And finally the new year rings in with a Motown sound. Plays are previewed here in order of opening date.

Already running (opened in November): 

L’Hotel, by Ed Dixon, takes “graveyard humor” to new lengths by pitting six dead celebrities against each other in a battle of wits. Through Dec. 14 at Pittsburgh Public Theater; see our review. Willy Holtzman’s Smart Blonde traces the life and times of a single exceptional talent from the past, Judy Holliday. Through Dec. 21 at City Theatre; see the entry in our November Preview for this play.

Opening in December:

In PICT's "Great Expectations," young Pip (Dylan Marquis Meyers, L) learns gentlemanly table manners from Herbert Pocket (Jordan Ross Weinhold). Photo: Suellen Fitzsimmons.

In PICT’s “Great Expectations,” young Pip (Dylan Marquis Meyers, L) learns gentlemanly table manners from Herbert Pocket (Jordan Ross Weinhold). Photo: Suellen Fitzsimmons.

GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Hugh Leonard, from the Charles Dickens novel. Dec. 3-20, PICT Classic Theatre.

In contrast to Dickens’ Oliver Twist, which was made into the Broadway musical Oliver!, his later and more nuanced novel Great Expectations translates nicely to straight (non-musical) theater. It’s the seriocomic saga of an orphan boy who becomes a fashionable young gentleman, then ultimately something better: a mature man. PICT Classic Theatre is performing the artful adaptation by Irish playwright Hugh Leonard, which premiered in Dublin in 1995 but is seldom staged in the U.S. Dylan Marquis Meyers—the young acting phenom seen previously in PICT’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme—stars as Pip, the orphan, in Great Expectations. At the Charity Randall Theatre in the Stephen Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Ave., Oakland.

IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE, adapted from the Frank Capra movie. Dec. 4-20, Bricolage.

Just about everyone has seen the 1946 film classic with Jimmy Stewart as the guy who can’t find a reason to live until his guardian angel shows him many reasons. If you have seen Bricolage in action, perhaps you can imagine what the company’s “Midnight Radio” comedy troupe does with its live-theater rendition of the story. Then again, at Bricolage it’s always wise to expect the unexpected, so all we can say is: Bring the kids. The evening includes interactive games, egg nog, and (as usual) a Happy Half-Hour preceding the show. 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

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 noted. 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 this year’s production of A Musical Christmas Carol by Pittsburgh CLO, Scrooge is 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 NUTCRACKER (ballet) by Peter Ilych Tchaikovsky and Marius Petipa. Dec. 5-28, 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 170(!) 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.

TRANSLATIONS (13-person performance piece) by Jennifer Nagle Myers. Dec. 12 only, CSA Performance Series at the New Hazlett Theater.

In this special event, an ensemble of actors, musicians, and others will help visual artist and director Myers “translate” several of her site-based performances into a one-hour stage show. Past work by Myers has included pieces such as I Love You, in which she had a man and woman repeat those words to one another on a street in East Liberty—first in a whispering embrace, then louder and louder as they backed away, until the refrain boomed and echoed across the neighborhood. Translations, done at the New Hazlett, should be intriguing in its own right. Members of the ensemble portray characters that include The Unreliable Narrator, The Last One Standing, and …The Weather. 8 p.m. 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

Christmas Star Image Art 2

CHRISTMAS STAR by Ray Werner. Dec. 12-28, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.

What does a family Christmas gathering mean for a war veteran? If dad is a Vietnam vet and his son was in the Iraq war, the interchange that they have leads into a deeper question: What does life itself mean for a war veteran? Christmas Star’s playwright, Ray Werner, was once a well-known creative director at a Pittsburgh ad agency and is currently embarked on a range of second careers. Werner first wrote the play as a one-act for PPTCO’s 2013 Theatre Festival in Black and White. Now fleshed out to full length, Christmas Star runs in repertory with another play spun out from that festival, Kim El’s Ubuntu Holiday (previewed further below). 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

Come fly with me, said a friendly Ghost (Beth Anderson) in a past production of "A Lyrical Christmas Carol." Photo: Patti Brahim.

Come fly with me, said a friendly Ghost (Beth Anderson) in a past production of “A Lyrical Christmas Carol.” Photo: Patti Brahim.

Ken Gargaro’s A LYRICAL CHRISTMAS CAROL by Ken and Jane Gargaro. Dec. 18-21, PMT’s Richard E. Rauh Conservatory Theater Co.

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 guaranteed treat. 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. The show tells the story in an engaging, moving way, and features some song-and-dance numbers that’ll send you home from the New Hazlett Theater in a supercharged holiday spirit. With Jeremy Czarnick as Scrooge. 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side.

UBUNTU HOLIDAY by Kim El. Dec 18-30, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Co.

“Ubuntu” is a southern African word that has been translated as “kindness,” “goodness,” or—in one broad definition—the notion that we can only be fully human through loving relations with others. Ubuntu Holiday, set in the modern U.S., is billed as a “gentle but thought-provoking comedy” about a Kwanzaa celebration. A guest who doesn’t buy into the holiday becomes grouchy and disruptive, but in the end, ubuntu carries the day. Playwright Kim El has long made her mark as an actor, director, and spoken-word artist in Pittsburgh. 937 Liberty Ave., Cultural District.

Aphra Behn called 'em as she saw 'em ... and in her day, she saw a lot.

Aphra Behn called ’em as she saw ’em, and in her day, she saw a lot.

OR by Liz Duffy Adams. Dec. 19–Jan. 10, Off the Wall Productions.

Next-to-last but not least, here’s a play set in the wild and crazy Sixties. The 1660s, that is, when King Charles II of England (a.k.a. the Merry Monarch) presided over a country busting loose after decades of Puritan rule. OR focuses on a most unusual woman who lived at that time. Aphra Behn (a.k.a. Agent 160) was a prolific author and playwright—often, of scandalously bawdy works—who also served as a spy for the king, a notorious philanderer. The play is a fictional comedy that imagines a hectic day in Behn’s extremely multitasked life. It’s gotten rave reviews in New York and San Francisco; now Off the Wall brings OR to our town. 25 W. Main St., Carnegie.

MOTOWN: THE MUSICAL by Berry Gordy. Dec. 30–Jan. 4, national touring company at Heinz Hall.

With this show, The Temptations for word-play are endless. One could say it’s loaded with Miracles, or call it Supreme, or maybe you Heard It Through the Grapevine. Motown: The Musical brings a cast of today’s actors to Heinz Hall to play (and sing) the roles of Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, and other stars from Detroit’s iconic record label. Based loosely on the autobiography of Motown founder Berry Gordy, the show received four Tony nominations last year. It includes over 60 songs, from “Dancing in the Street” to the 1970 chart-topper “War”—and though most are done only in short versions, that’s a lotta Motown. 600 Penn Ave., Cultural District.

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