Updated 2:12 p.m. Dec. 3
At the theater, the holidays used to mean one show: “A Christmas Carol,” which became as much a staple as “The Nutcracker”. Then came David Sedaris’ comic delight, “The Santaland Diaries,” and the Langston Hughes-inspired “Black Nativity.”
All three are performed around the nation. This season, four Philadelphia-area stages offer “A Christmas Carol,” and it’s making one of its occasional appearances in a glowing, thoughtful new version that just opened on Broadway.
Nowadays, theater companies offer a greater variety of holiday fare. Sometimes, the themes have little to do with the holidays, but the shows have a few things in common: They almost always fall on the bright side, are produced to attract families, and generally reflect the joy of the season.
Here are some of the professional offerings area theater companies are staging. You needn’t don a Santa hat to enjoy them, just put on a happy face.
“A Christmas Carol.” Charles Dickens continues to command attention — and audiences — with his quintessential story about redemption. In Princeton, McCarter Theatre’s production (through Dec. 29), a musical adaptation by David Thompson and the late composer Michael Friedman, combines period-specific music with modern design and special effects. Audiences that arrive an hour before each performance can meet characters from the play, sing carols, and munch sweets.
No professional stage company in these parts has embraced “A Christmas Carol” more than Hedgerow Theatre in Rose Valley, just outside Media. The current production, running through Dec, 24, is Hedgerow’s 28th annual telling of the classic. It’s adapted and directed by the company’s artistic leader, Jared Reed, with longtime Hedgerow favorite Zoran Kovcic as Scrooge. The show includes lots of young performers, mostly from Hedgerow’s acting school, along with the professional cast.
At Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington, the entire cast of “A Christmas Carol” is composed of five women, among them some of the area’s most visible actors. Mary Martello is Scrooge, and the other characters are played by Liz Filios, Sarah Gliko, Charlotte Northeast, and Michaela Shuchman. Props, physical acting, and good old theater magic combine to help tell the story.
Locally-based playwright and actor Anthony Lawton has performed his critically acclaimed and highly theatrical telling of “A Christmas Carol” in the past, and this year Lantern Theater presents the production on the stage of the Proscenium Theater at the Drake. Lawton’s descriptive telling has an authentic ring, probably because it sticks so closely to the master’s original novella in plot and wording — except when it’s wonderfully transformed to Philly at just the right moments.
“Shrek the Musical” and “The Gifts of the Magi.” Walnut Street Theatre offers two holiday shows. On its main stage, “Shrek the Musical” is the big holiday offering. The show, with a book and lyrics by David Lindsay-Abaire and music by Jeanine Tesoro, was good fun on Broadway, with its ogre, donkey and princess on a journey that just might change their lives. The Walnut production, on now, runs through Jan 5.
“The Gifts of the Magi” is a romantic musical comedy involving a madly-in-love and penniless couple at the holidays. It’s an adaptation of a story by O. Henry that originally appeared in the New York World in 1905. The show plays in the more intimate Independence Studio on the Walnut’s third floor through Dec. 22.
“This Is the Week That Is”. This satirical musical show, changing each year, is a happy spoof on politics, American culture, Philly life, and whatever comes to the minds of the folks at 1812 Productions. Although it’s not specifically a holiday-themed show, it’s become a Center City Christmastime tradition, with a revved-up fan base at 1812’s home, Plays & Players. The form of the show goes back decades to a pioneering NBC-TV topical satire series, and lives on, just as fresh, in 1812’s hands.
“Little Red Robin Hood.” The panto — a Christmastime romp that dates to the 18th century, begs for audience reaction, and has its own theatrical rules — has become the holiday staple of People’s Light in Malvern. In turn, People’s Light has become a leading American producer of the form. In this world-premiere panto running through Jan. 5, the People’s Light team blends the legend of Robin Hood with the tale of Little Red Riding Hood, and, well, who knows what will happen? But then, that’s the fun of pantos, twists that take tales on new journeys.
“The Snow Queen.” First came Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale, and a lot later came “Frozen,” the smash-hit Disney film that’s also a Broadway musical. And now, this story that travels through the four seasons is being adapted by Charles Way at Arden Theatre Company through Jan. 26. It’s staged by Whit McLaughlin, a longtime kid-theater director whiz. Or is that wizard?
“The Wizard of Oz.” The movie of the classic L. Frank Baum story has been a televised holiday treat for years, and this stage adaptation — originally from the Royal Shakespeare Company — is being produced by Quintessence Theatre Group at its Mount Airy home, the Sedgwick Theater. The production includes Harold Harlan and Yip Harburg’s score from the film and all the Munchkins and flying monkeys Quintessence can gather.
“Ebenezer Scrooge’s Big Playhouse Christmas Show.” It’s not really “A Christmas Carol,” but sort of. Five actors in fast costume changes play dozens of roles as Ebenezer Scrooge terrorizes Bucks County and finally finds the Christmas spirit in New Hope. (Oops! Forgot to warn: spoiler alert!) Bucks County Playhouse revives the show, which was a big draw last year, and offers some special performances for audience members who want to be on stage with the actors. The spoof runs Dec. 6-29.
“Mikey the Elf and the Case of the Missing Mistletoe.” Yikes! Toyland’s magical mistletoe is missing, and Mrs. Claus calls Mikey to the North Pole to find it — or find the culprit who may have swiped it. Find out who at Act II Playhouse in Ambler, where the show runs through Dec. 31.
“Elf, the Musical.” This stage version of the popular movie about a little boy mistakenly transported to the North Pole, then raised there as the most awkward elf imaginable, is produced by Media Theatre in Media. It runs through Jan. 12.
“Nuncrackers.” Straight from the canon of goofy Nunsense shows involving misguided nuns and their habits, the Nunsense Christmas musical, produced here by Montgomery Theater in Souderton. It’s purportedly the first TV special taped in the cable access studio that Reverend Mother built inside the convent. Carols are included. The show runs through Dec. 8.
“The Eighth Fish of Christmas.” Is there ever a dull Christmas Eve in the DeSanto house? Not this year, when a 29-year-old divorced Roman Catholic daughter returns from a trip to Europe with a new Jewish boyfriend in tow. How about some latkes with that Christmas ham? Raw Street Productions produces the show Dec. 12-21 at Connie’s Ric Rac on Ninth Street near Ellsworth.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to include Hedgerow Theatre’s production of “A Christmas Carol.”