Fifteen holiday shows to see now 

There's a lot more out there than A Christmas Carol.

Piccolo Theatre's panto Clara & the Nutcracker

Piccolo Theatre's panto Clara & the Nutcracker

Robert Erving Potter III

A Beer Carol You've got to hand it to Steve Mosqueda and Sean Benjamin. They've stayed true to their vision even at the risk of their livers. Their Drinking & Writing Theater is all about the creativity that flows from inebriation, and their shows are paeans to the alcoholic beverage. Especially beer. Even hallowed yuletide traditions get bent (as it were) to their intentions. First staged in 2011, A Beer Carol recasts Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol as the inspirational tale of Bud Miller, ruthless CEO of the Milweiser Beer Company, whose piss-purveying ways are changed by visits from the spirits of beer's key ingredients: water, grain, hops, and yeast. There are some odd and funny passages, especially when it comes to Carolyn Shoemaker-Benjamin's performance as a very peculiar Tiny Tim. But the show is more amusing than uproarious overall—a pleasantly goofy way to pass an hour while nursing a beer. —Tony Adler

click to enlarge The Hypocrites/Ruffians' Burning Bluebeard - EVAN HANOVER
  • The Hypocrites/Ruffians' Burning Bluebeard
  • Evan Hanover

[Recommended] Burning Bluebeard As far as holiday classics go, it's safe to assume Jay Torrence's 2011 docu-fantasy has the highest body count. In the charred remains of the Iroquois Theatre, the 1903 Chicago spectacle-turned-disaster where nearly 600 women and children burned and suffocated in the worst building fire in American history, six actors and crew try to complete the show's final act—this time without killing everyone. Directed by Halena Kays, this coproduction from the Hypocrites and the Ruffians masterfully pivots between gallows humor and paralyzing moments of awe; it's unpredictable, musical, and manipulative in the best way. Pam Chermansky doesn't quite create the layers of depth originated by Dean Evans as a sinister clown fixated on the story's many true-fact tragic ironies, but nonetheless it's a critical piece of local history told by a collective exemplifying style on the Chicago stage. —Dan Jakes

click to enlarge Emerald City Theatre's A Charlie Brown Christmas - BRIAN JARREAU
  • Emerald City Theatre's A Charlie Brown Christmas
  • Brian Jarreau

A Charlie Brown Christmas This Emerald City Theatre children's show opens on a big old television set of the type that would've been in use around 1965, when the original A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted on CBS. Kids gather around it, flipping through shows until they find the one about Charlie's search for the true meaning of December 25. Then the stage adaptation kicks in. The TV bit is more than an homage: It pulls us back to a time when few thought twice about a major network running an animated special that—spoiler alert—ends up extolling the Jesus-as-savior narrative found in the Gospels. If things have changed since then, that change isn't reflected here. Eric Schaeffer's script and Ernie Nolan's 45-minute staging hold tight to anachronism, supplying a production that's as Christian as it is jolly. Don't expect nonsectarian holiday cheer a la A Christmas Carol. —Tony Adler

click to enlarge Larry Yando plays Scrooge in the Goodman's Christmas Carol. - LIZ LAUREN
  • Larry Yando plays Scrooge in the Goodman's Christmas Carol.
  • Liz Lauren

[Recommended] A Christmas Carol I used to find Dickens sentimental; now I think he's profound. There's something subversive even in his creation of capitalist everyman Ebenezer Scrooge (Larry Yando), whose grumpy isolation (the illusion of separateness, the Buddhists would call it) is an adaptive defense. When Scrooge's nephew, Fred (Anish Jethmalani), reminds him that we humans are, after all, mere "fellow passengers to the grave," Scrooge won't hear it. But after a night of spectral visitations—including one from his former partner, Jacob Marley (Joe Foust)—he realizes just that: we are inextricably bound, and our time here is short. Director Henry Wishcamper's production always brings something newly revelatory to the beloved story, and in his eighth year as Scrooge, Yando remains impishly delightful in his portrayal of a man gifted with the chance to make amends. There are many returning favorites here, and relative newcomers—including the commanding Ghosts of Christmas Past (Travis A. Knight) and Present (Lisa Gaye Dixon). —Suzanne Scanlon

click to enlarge Quest Theatre's A Christmas Carol: The Musical - BRAXTON BLACK
  • Quest Theatre's A Christmas Carol: The Musical
  • Braxton Black

A Christmas Carol: The Musical The Christmas Eve conversion of miser Ebenezer Scrooge is put to music in this 1994 adaptation of Charles Dickens's beloved novella. Lyricist Lynn Ahrens (who also wrote the book, with Mike Ockrent) and composer Alan Menken have been involved in the creation of many notable musicals, but it's unlikely that their contributions here, which have more in common with "Good King Wenceslas" than "Silent Night," will be appearing on anybody's caroling set list any time soon. Andrew Park's production for Quest Theatre Ensemble is filled with cheer and goodwill, but poor traffic control on a small stage causes trouble throughout. Nick Rupard's papier-mache puppets stand in for the children in the tale; Tiny Tim bears an unfortunate resemblance to alleged serial killer Robert Durst. —Zac Thompson

click to enlarge Clara & the Nutcracker - ROBERT ERVING POTTER III
  • Clara & the Nutcracker
  • Robert Erving Potter III

[Recommended] Clara & the Nutcracker Piccolo Theatre's annual Christmas panto continues its long-standing tradition of turning traditional holiday fairy tales on their heads and adding slapstick, zingers, and nonstop audience participation. This Nutcracker adaptation by Jessica Puller, who penned music and lyrics with Derrick Gaetke, is as far from the classic ballet as one can imagine, featuring Liz Dillard as a feisty Clara with two left feet. Preferring punches to plies, she embarks on a dangerous adventure into the Land of Sweets to save kidnapped Princess Marie and help the Nutcracker Prince retake his throne. On the night I attended, the only thing junior audience members loved more than booing the Rat King was shouting "Tschaikovsky!" as the southern-belle Sugar Plum Fairy, played by a lovably off-kilter Joshua D. Allard, worked her magic. —Marissa Oberlander

The Great Annoyance Melodrama and Vaudeville Revue Performing family-friendly fare in a venue like Annoyance Theater—where "Suck my cok" [sic] is a Thought of the Day on the chalk menu at the bar—must be like working with one hand tied behind your back. C.J. Tuor's goofy production, though, succeeds in capitalizing on the antics of a cartoonish, physical cast of ten. Music by Robbie Ellis underscores a mustachioed villain's attempt to rig a holiday competition for the tallest tree in town. There are some original send-ups of vaudeville tropes, but over the course of two acts even the youngest viewers may find the humor meriting more smiles than laughs. —Dan Jakes

click to enlarge Irene Currie and Zlatomir Moldovanski in Profiles' Hellcab - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • Irene Currie and Zlatomir Moldovanski in Profiles' Hellcab
  • Michael Brosilow

[Recommended] Hellcab Once an edgy late-night offering, Will Kern's portrait of a crappy day in the life of a Chicago cabdriver—which ran for nine years starting in 1992—has become a Christmastime tradition at Profiles Theatre. That's not to suggest, however, that director Eric Burgher and his enormous cast of 33 players have toned down the ferocity of the work. The parade of jerks, drunks, horn dogs, and lost souls who pass through the taxi on a gray Christmas Eve remain as vivid and gnarly as ever. As the driver, Chicago newcomer Zlatomir Moldovanski brings a surprising vulnerability to a role that seems on the surface an exercise in sneering misanthropy. He might profess to hate humanity, but by the end we don't believe him. --Zac Thompson

click to enlarge Step Up Productions' evening of yuletide one-acts, HoliDaze - LIZ LAUREN
  • Step Up Productions' evening of yuletide one-acts, HoliDaze
  • Liz Lauren

HoliDaze The third iteration of Step Up Productions' annual presentation of yule-themed plays features six original short works by local writers. The evening starts and ends with squabbling families; in between, we get a zany office party and three playlets in a row about twentysomething couples being adorable. Despite the repetition, there's no real clunker in the group. Each piece goes out on a heartwarming note, and that's fine--'tis the season for it, after all. But the best offerings acknowledge an ache underneath the goodwill. Especially strong are the two family dramas, Mia McCullough's Temperance vs. Tolerance and Steven Simoncic's Later in the Strange, both of which involve wounded adult siblings and a widowed parent coming to an uneasy and probably temporary holiday truce. --Zac Thompson

click to enlarge The cast of Second City's Holidazed and Confused - KIRSTEN MICCOLI
  • The cast of Second City's Holidazed and Confused
  • Kirsten Miccoli

[Recommended] Holidazed and Confused What makes this show remarkable isn't its structure. Anyone who's been to Second City will recognize the format—one sketch after another, some with songs, some without, some laugh-out-loud funny, some not. What makes it noteworthy is the quirky, likable cast, a diverse and hilarious gaggle of misfits, each of whom finds a way of communicating her or his own brand of funny in the well-worn Second City formula. Jasbir Singh amazes with his Chaplinesque physical comedy. Martin Morrow and Ali Barthwell kill in an audience-participation piece about Kwanzaa. But to single out three is hardly fair in a show packed with energetic, eager, and able performers. —Jack Helbig

click to enlarge American Blues Theater's It's a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! - JOHNNY KNIGHT
  • American Blues Theater's It's a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!
  • Johnny Knight

[Recommended] It's a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! The relentlessly heartwarming preshow for American Blues Theater's annual holiday offering nearly ruined my evening: 20 minutes of Christmas sing-alongs, audience birthday announcements, holiday musical quizzes (one just for the kids!), a barbershop rendition of "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas," and most teeth-grating, the pious thank-you and standing ovation for the prearranged Iraq war vet in the audience (as ever, no chest-thumping thanks to emergency-room nurses or public school teachers for their service). But the savvy performances in director Gwendolyn Whiteside's expertly paced production, the precision of Michael Mahler's spirited musical direction, and the ingenuity of Frank Capra's 1946 film--here adapted into a faux radio broadcast—ultimately left me in a state of pure delight. —Justin Hayford

click to enlarge Sam Hubbard in Strawdog Theatre's The Long Christmas Ride Home - KBH MEDIA
  • Sam Hubbard in Strawdog Theatre's The Long Christmas Ride Home
  • KBH Media

[Recommended] The Long Christmas Ride Home The title conjures images of John-Boy Walton sitting atop a hay wagon, driving a jingle-belled Clydesdale through a gentle snow while the rest of the clan lie back on a bed of straw, smiling up at the stars. And sure enough, Paula Vogel's 2003 play revolves around a holiday visit to grandma's house. Yet this trip is anything but idyllic. Here, the wagon is a 1950s-vintage Rambler, and the family it carries is headed for a defining trauma, with philandering Dad at the wheel, embittered Mom beside him, and three deeply uneasy kids in the backseat. Chamber-theater-style storytelling and bunraku-inspired puppets contribute to the comic, tragic, honest beauty of this unorthodox yuletide tale, sensitively rendered in Josh Sobel's staging for Strawdog Theatre. Don't see it with the kids unless you're prepared for a serious discussion on the ride home. —Tony Adler

click to enlarge The House Theatre of Chicago's sugar-plum-free Nutcracker - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • The House Theatre of Chicago's sugar-plum-free Nutcracker
  • Michael Brosilow

[Recommended] The Nutcracker The House Theatre's gorgeous, arresting annual holiday show bears only a faint resemblance to Tchaikovsky's ballet. Instead of bratty kids and sugarplum fairies, Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich's tightly spun book introduces a family wracked by tragic loss. But magic still abounds, and in quantities that will bring a tear to the eye of even the stingiest Grinch. Though it isn't dance in the traditional sense, director Tommy Rapley's dazzling choreography infuses every scene. The show's one weakness might be the musical numbers, which are mercifully brief and few. But in plotting, performance, and visual design, it's a nearly flawless, truly essential all-ages holiday show. In a world of treacle and dross, that such a thing exists is a Christmas miracle of its own. —Keith Griffith

click to enlarge The Santaland Diaries - JOHNNY KNIGHT
  • The Santaland Diaries
  • Johnny Knight

[Recommended] The Santaland Diaries Funny, campy, foul-mouthed, and festive, Theater Wit's The Santaland Diaries stars Mitchell Fain in role of Crumpet, a Macy's holiday elf with a frisky, irreverent attitude and big glass of white wine for his breaks. Fain gives us the elf's-eye view of holiday shopping season, miming all the hilariousness of mall culture with rubber-faced ease; he'll riff on anyone and anything, and pulls it all off joyfully. In fact, his soaring energy sometimes puts him at odds with the droll deadpan of the David Sedaris story on which the show is based. Nonetheless, this is great holiday fun. —Max Maller

click to enlarge Kiss Kiss Cabaret, part of "Sexy Saturdays" at the Uptown Underground - GREG INDA
  • Kiss Kiss Cabaret, part of "Sexy Saturdays" at the Uptown Underground
  • Greg Inda

Sexy Saturdays Get in the holiday spirit by watching performers in circus makeup crack raunchy jokes and take their clothes off, possibly while sporting Santa beards. Every weekend the Uptown Underground features a different lineup of holiday-themed cabaret and burlesque performances, courtesy of the Cabaret Project, Kiss Kiss Cabaret, and Pervesk' Burlesk', among others. Expect music and hammy acts—including a Bette Midler tribute if you go on the right night—and lots of inventive striptease from the betasseled Kiss Kiss Coquettes. The latter are introduced by a rotating comic emcee whose modern stand-up patter ("You guys") can seem at odds with the old-school ribaldry on offer. One ticket gets you into the whole evening, though midnight general admission is also available. —Andrew Lapin

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