2009 Chicago Christmas Theater

Christmas Show Round-Up

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By Barry Eitel

With all those holiday shows out in Chicago right now, it’s hard to decide what to see on top of all the shopping and avoiding extended family. And there is something for everyone out there, from Dickensian classics to ones celebrating the seedier side of December. This season has seen a fairly controversial Christmas on the Chicago theatre scene. For one, there is the on-going feud between American Theatre Company and American Blues Theatre, both of which are simultaneously visiting the village of Bedford Falls with “radio” productions of It’s a Wonderful Life. Just a bit awkward. And then there is the whole Civic Opera Christmas Carol fiasco, where producer/ex-convict Kevin Von Feldt promised a cavalcade of stars and then the whole project somehow fell through. Not to worry, though. There is plenty of goodwill towards man out there to keep you entertained until January.

Luckily for you, the elves at Chicago Theatre Blog have put together a Holiday Theatre Guide to find the perfect show for you. So bust out the coffee and pumpkin pie, and enjoy our sleigh ride through the holiday theatre season.

IF YOU’RE IN TO LONG-STANDING TRADITIONS

Go see the Goodman’s Christmas Carol (★★★½). The show has 32 years behind it and the list of actors who have played past Scrooges reads like a Hall of Fame for Chicago actors. This year’s version has a nice mix of the time-honored and the refreshing. Larry Yando does a remarkable job as Scrooge, bringing out new facets of the usually stiff character. Most of the production in terms of design has not changed over the years, but it still gets results emotionally (and financially). Even without overhauling the dusty script or design, Bill Brown’s strikingly honest production can melt even the most cynical Scrooges in the audience (our review here).

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IF YOU DON’T MIND TRAVELING TO INDIANA

Then The Christmas Schooner at Theatre at the Center (★★★★) is the show for you. Once usual fare at the now-deceased Bailiwick Arts Center, the show has moved on to its new home in Munster, Indiana. The Theatre at the Center production revels in furthering the orchestrations and design. Called the “most Midwestern” of the Christmas shows out there, the musical tells the tale of 19th Century German immigrants, Christmas trees, and a ship carrying very important holiday cargo. With the vast amount of Equity actors and Christmas cheer, The Christmas Schooner is worth the trip (our review here).

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IF YOU’RE A FAN OF ROCK OPERAS

You should see the musical stylings in The Snow Queen  (★★★), the annual Christmas show at Victory Gardens. Adapted by Frank Galati from a Hans Christian Anderson story, this little musical tells the story of a girl battling an evil snow queen in order to rescue her friend. There’s puppets, live music, and plenty of reindeer. If you like your Christmas carols with a little more guitar and a little less pipe organ, you should head on down to Victory Gardens to catch this gem (our review here).

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IF YOU LOVE SPECTACLE

Then check out Redmoon’s Winter Pageant (★★½). The famously choreography-and-spectacle-oriented company’s foray into holiday shows is a wonder to behold. The show boasts a breakneck pace and very little dialogue, so it is sure to delight the entire family. With their focus on magical theatrics, Redmoon have created a show that celebrates what we love about winter (our review here).

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IF YOU HATE CHRISTMAS SHOWS

You should take a look at A Red Orchid Theatre’s A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Pageant (★★★).  Or take a look at the production going on at Next Theatre (★★½) in Evanston. Either way, you’ll enjoy these children acting out the history and theory of Scientology, as dictated by L. Ron Hubbard. And most likely, you’ll be a little frightened. Your inner cynic, however, will love the fact that children are pulling off this juicy satire about one of the world’s most lucrative religions (our reviews here and here).

IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A SHOW UNDER 90 MINUTES

Miracle on 34th Street (★★★½) presented by Porchlight Music Theatre could be the show for you. Taking place at the Theatre Building Chicago, this adaptation is not really a straight musical besides a select number of Christmas carols. Through condensing the most memorable section of the classic 1947 film, director L. Walter Stearns comes in at a kid-friendly 80 minutes. Even with this abridged adaptation, you’ll be reminded why you fell in love with the story in the first place (our review here).

IF YOU’RE JEWISH

There’s always the snarky Whining in the Windy City: Holiday Edition, the one-woman show at the Royal George featuring the sarcastic Jackie Hoffman. She plays the Grandmama in The Addams Family  (review★★★)  and rants in this show on Mondays, her off-nights. Hoffman whines about children, her current role at the Oriental, and, especially, the holidays, Chanukah or otherwise. It all makes for a pretty cathartic Monday night.

IF YOU WANT TO TAKE A TRIP TO BEDFORD FALLS

Than two routes are available to you. You could either see American Theatre Company’s It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play (★★★) or American Blues Theatre (comprised of many former ATC ensemble members) present It’s A Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!  Even though one does have an exclamation point in the title, both are well-done and feature decent performances and live radio sound effects. Yet both have their subtle differences, ABT relying more heavily on music and the charm of the Biograph Theatre, while ATC sticks a bit closer to the time period. Both stage/radio adaptations capture the charm and sentimentality of Frank Capra’s original film (our review here).

IF YOU’VE HAD A CRAPPY SEASONAL JOB

Than you’ll identify with Mitchell Fain, who stars in Theater Wit’s one-man show The Santaland Diaries (★★★). A stage adaptation of David Sedaris’ delightfully subversive essay of the same name, the production follows the adventure of Fain as he works at Macy’s as the elf Crumpet. This is not a straight reading of Sedaris’ work. Fain brings his own personality to the play and inserts his own stories, making this quite a different experience than just reading the essay, like all good stage adaptations (our review here).

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IF YOU’RE NOSTLAGIC FOR STOP-MOTION ANIMATION

You might want to take a look at Annoyance Theatre’s live action version of Rankin /Bass’ 1964 television special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (★★★½). Surprisingly, Annoyance does a faithful translation for the stage, considering they’re known for their destruction of anything sentimental (the show is running alongside Cockette’s: A Christmas Spectacular). With the music and characters of the beloved original, this Rudolph is meant to enchant theatergoers from 1 to 92 (our review here).

Although there are only a few days before Santa comes around, there are still plenty of options offered by the bounteous Chicago theatre scene. Don’t be fooled into thinking this guide presents everything out there, either. For some other offerings, check the review listing on the side.

REVIEW: A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant (Next Theatre)

Limited Direction Hampers “…Scientology Pageant”

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Next Theatre presents:

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant

By Kyle Jarrow
Concept by Alex Timbers
directed by Kathryn Walsh
thru January 3rd, 2010 (ticket info)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

The boxy proscenium studio theater space at Next Theatre creates challenges for any of its productions. It produces visual perspectives that tend toward the two-dimensional and contained. One would think that wouldn’t necessarily detract from a satire qua children’s pageant. Yet the set design (Grant Sabin) for Next’s seasonal production, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, is strikingly flat and unimaginative. Kathyrn Walsh’s direction stays contentedly—and without irony–within its confines, for the most part stationing the pageant’s child actors on three-tiered risers that further distance audience from performance.

It is the staging that dulls the tooth of this anti-religious-scam slam fest. Children re-enacting with absolute earnestness the life of L. Ron Hubbard, the modern prophet of Scientology, is a premise with Wildean potential. But, for all it’s self-touted edginess, in close collaboration with the show’s Obie award winning creator, Kyle Jarrow, Next has pulled its punches and stayed closer to conventional home.

Awkward scene changes and uneven pacing fragment the ensemble cast’s cohesiveness. Interestingly, it is cohesiveness they energetically demonstrate while cutting loose during some of the musical numbers, throwing in acrobatic abandon for good measure. Jennifer Baker, Sara Geist, and Nicole Rudakova project performances that stand out from the constrictions with which they must contend. Also, Jason Krause ably plays L. Ron Hubbard, pulling off smug self-satisfaction and the cravat-and-blazer look with natural ease.

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Several new songs have been introduced as products of collaboration between Jarrow and Next Theatre’s Artistic Director Jason Southerland. While one song lends a softer, more humanizing tone to the process individuals within Scientology may go through, the rest don’t radically alter the message or style of the show, nor do they have to. The amount of satire that any religion can take should be directly proportional to the money it makes.

Rating: ★★½

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Review: “A Very Merry Children’s Scientology Pageant”

Red Orchid Lets Religious Absurdity Loose

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A Red Orchid Theatre presents:

A Very Merry Children’s Scientology Pageant

By Kyle Jarrow from a concept by Alex Timbers
Directed by Steve Wilson
Music Direction by Brandon Magid
thru January 3, 2010 (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Szalai-Raymond, V It’s only November, but if you are already tired of virgin births, wise men led by stars, angels singing to shepherds or animals talking in mangers, then A Red Orchid Theatre’s remount of A Very Merry Children’s Scientology Pageant just might be the cure for what ails you. Based upon the self-promoted achievements of L. Ron Hubbard, the pageant explores one man’s search for the answers to life’s most important questions and his creation of the religion Scientology.

That children enact this story is the stroke of genius that A Red Orchid Theatre can pat itself on the back over for years to come. The pageant has quickly morphed into Chicago’s brand new holiday favorite–what with Next Theatre opening its production in two weeks. Will Chicago survive dueling Scientology pageants? Will these theaters survive an onslaught from Scientology’s lawyers? Is this a sign of the Apocalypse?

I hardly know which is scarier–Scientology, the story of the creation of Scientology, or the amount of talent these kids possess. Director Steve Wilson has one tight group of young actors at his disposal. They rock the house with angelic paeans to L. Ron Hubbard, slow-motion battle scenes, hilarious E-meter demonstrations, and fabulous portrayal of the sinister galactic overlord, Xenu. One actor even looks like a pre-teen Tom Cruise—now that’s scary.

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In a classic moment of paranoia, I considered whether this satire could actually be a vehicle promoting Scientology. For L. Ron, all paths for spiritual growth sooner or later lead to Hawaii. And why not? All the same, other than blasting away your engrams or your Thetans, Scientology still doesn’t have answers for who we are or what life’s purpose is all about. But in the midst of the joy of the Scientology pageant, we really don’t care.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant features A Red Orchid Theatre Youth Ensemble members Chaz Allen, Najwa Brown, Jaiden Fallo, Paola Lehman, Adam Rebora, Kara Ryan, Elenna Sindler and Aria Szalai-Raymond; as well as newcomers Elita Ernsteen, Katherine Jordan, and Alex Turner.

Photo Credits: Michael Brosilow