A Dickens Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, and nine more new stage shows | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

A Dickens Carol, It's a Wonderful Life, and nine more new stage shows 

A clever mashup of fact and fiction and a "radio show" version of the holiday classic are among this week's best bets.

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click to enlarge A Dickens Carol

A Dickens Carol

Courtesy Madison Street Theatre

Altered Boy Arguably, the eighth rite of the Catholic church is to make art about parting ways with the Catholic church. Louisiana-born comedian Garrett Allain chronicles his religious upbringing and sexual coming of age in this autobiographical one-man show in the form of a string of loosely related comedic sketches. Allain combines video segments that reimagine his school play performances, heartfelt monologues, family impersonations, and The Lonely Island-style music numbers about “GAMs” (grown-ass men) and Tinder to provide an impressionistic look at his life. His lyrical prowess outweighs his vocal ability, and only a few sketches really land, but there’s some profound insight here into the uniquely complicated relationship closeted gay Christians had with their sexuality during the height of the Catholic church’s child sex abuse scandal. Jeff Bouthiette directs. —Dan Jakes

Bite Size Broadway This one-act packs eight original “micromusicals” written by musical legend Bobby Lloyd Webber, fictional estranged son of Sir Andrew, into an hour. In JonBenét: Tiny Sweetheart, Tiny Murder, the Ramsey family tries to cover up evidence of the crime—and of their tiny dress fetishes—as the police investigate. In Nancy Drew: The Musical, Nancy’s gang has a run-in with the Hardy Boys, trading battle-of-the-sexes barbs as they search for clues. It’s a fun premise with an extremely capable cast of six, including Evan Mills as a plaintive, crazy-eyed Cleopatra. The material as a whole sometimes seems less than the sum of its parts, though. Perhaps Bobby (an endearingly caustic Mark Walsh on the night I attended) can flesh out the standouts into a few “nearly micro” but more developed concepts. —Marissa Oberlander

click to enlarge Oak Park Festival Theatre's A Dickens Carol - COURTESY MADISON STREET THEATRE
  • Oak Park Festival Theatre's A Dickens Carol
  • Courtesy Madison Street Theatre

[Recommended] A Dickens Carol Ned Crowley’s clever holiday play, receiving here its world premiere at the Oak Park Festival Theatre, weaves moments from Charles Dickens’s life into the fabric of his most famous holiday story to create a wholly entertaining show that’s part parody, part po-mo romp, part ripping yarn. Directed and starring Kevin Theis, the production is packed with lots of special effects (music, lights, elaborate set pieces, and a great deal of stage haze), though these take a back seat to Crowley’s witty dialogue and strong storytelling as well as to Theis’s 13-member ensemble, who deliver top-of-the-line performances. Theis himself kills as a larger-than-life Dickens who finds himself a Scrooge, hating the world, totally absorbed by his work, and unexpectedly forced to reflect on his life by a succession of visiting spirits. —Jack Helbig

click to enlarge Irving Berlin's White Christmas, at the Cadillac Palace - JEREMY DANIEL
  • Irving Berlin's White Christmas, at the Cadillac Palace
  • Jeremy Daniel

Irving Berlin’s White Christmas The 1954 holiday film classic White Christmas was a paean to old-fashioned mores, telling the tale of two successful, sophisticated song-and-dance men—one a womanizer, the other a cynic—who surrender to true love and homely values while helping out the general they served under in World War II. This 2008 stage version doesn’t meddle with that formula. You want Christmas? You get it in the sentimental, Eisenhower-era style, where the holiday is universal, heterosexual marriage is a blissful ideal, and—in the Equity touring production running now at the Cadillac Palace Theatre—the presence of a lone black cast member only emphasizes the whiteness all around her. Director-choreographer Randy Skinner even works in that weird retro gesture where a male dancer has his female partner circle him at arm’s length like a prize filly. It’s all very well done and jolly, as long as you don’t worry about the creepy implications. —Tony Adler

[Recommended] The Customer Is Always Right? Holiday Edition Given this 40-minute offering’s semidutiful premise—a couple people tell horror stories from their days working in customer service, then a team of six improvise around those stories—it’s gratifying to see just how far off the rails these Annoyance improvisers are willing to take things. A tale of creepy solicitation at a Six Flags antique photograph emporium became a demented journey through Butterworld, a Wisconsin amusement park where Roald Dahl pitched a children’s book about a sex giant. A second saga of misguided telemarketing (trying to sell people a spare refrigerator full of meat) somehow turned into five salespeople trying to sell knife sets by pretending to be Jude Law simultaneously. Even with a few hesitant moments, the show zings along delightfully. —Justin Hayford

Grimoire The premise behind this 45-minute sketch show is kind of clever. As explained in an opening ballad, it concerns a pair of comics (Jon Matteson and James Harvey Freetly) who lose consciousness when the cruise ship they’re performing on strays into the Bermuda Triangle, then wake to find themselves in thrall to a nasty-minded, human-skin-bound talking book with showbiz ambitions. Now the book is forcing them to act out bits it wrote. Sure enough, some of those bits (potential rescuers argue semantics while a building burns, a marooned driver plays charades with his would-be murderer) feel like the sort of thing an evil tome might think up. But the conceit loses steam as Grimoire goes on, until it’s less an animating force than a clothesline on which to hang miscellaneous, mildly amusing gags. —Tony Adler

It’s Christmas, Goddamnit! These 100-minutes of Christmas sacrilege should give the Annoyance ample opportunity to display its uniquely charismatic insolence. Christmas Eve brings together the prototypically dysfunctional James family: the level-headed and recently widowed dad, the slacker son and his miserable wife, the nymphomaniac daughter and her condescending husband, the loner daughter, the loathsome uncle. Thrown into the mix are the doting next-door neighbor and her near catatonic son—the only one of six siblings who survived a horrifying bus crash—who may be a vicious murderer. But despite such a volatile mix, director Tiffani Swalley keeps everything on such a low simmer that very little explodes. Rather than outrageousness, we get mild-mannered foolishness, often hampered by such awkward timing that the jokes don’t land. —Justin Hayford

American Blues Theater's It's a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! - MICHAEL BROSILOW
  • American Blues Theater's It's a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!
  • Michael Brosilow

[Recommended] It’s a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago! Bedford Falls is an idyllic small town in this staged “radio play” version of Frank Capra’s 1946 movie. Idyllic, at least, until George Bailey—middle-aged president of the local building & loan, faithful husband, and father of four—has a night of the soul so dark that angelic intervention is required to keep him from killing himself. American Blues Theater has made the 90-minute piece an annual holiday staple, complete with commercial jingles and candy cane prizes, without letting it dull out into ritual. I was especially aware this year of the intimate tones Gwendolyn Whiteside’s Mary uses toward George at crucial moments, suggesting in a way not even Donna Reed did in the original that the pair aren’t just teammates in marriage but lovers. (Whiteside will be replaced by Camille Robinson as of December 20.) Zach Kenney creates his own, entirely believable George, John Mohrlein makes a weary villain of rich old Potter, and the easy command of music director Michael Mahler is quietly astonishing. —Tony Adler

click to enlarge Q Brothers Christmas Carol - LIZ LAUREN
  • Q Brothers Christmas Carol
  • Liz Lauren

Q Brothers Christmas Carol The Q Brothers rhyme, dance, scratch, and mug their way through Charles Dickens’s Yuletide warhorse at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Here Ebenezer Scrooge goes from proclaiming the holiday “Christ-my-ass” to insisting his long-suffering employee Cratchett call him Neezie as he’s taught the meaning of the holiday. By turns buoyant and hackneyed, this production can’t be accused of ever falling into the maudlin mire this play is so often reduced to, but by trying so hard to connect to a younger audience through hip-hop, dancehall reggae, and the like, the brothers sometimes come off as desperately eager to please. That said, while A Christmas Carol isn’t likely to blow anyone’s mind at this point, the Q Brothers have done all they can to spread season’s greetings in their own way. —Dmitry Samarov

click to enlarge This Way Outta Santaland (and Other Xmas Miracles - CHARLES OSGOOD PHOTOGRAPHY
  • This Way Outta Santaland (and Other Xmas Miracles
  • Charles Osgood Photography

This Way Outta Santaland (and Other Xmas Miracles) For the past eight years, elfin actor Mitchell Fain has celebrated the winter holidays by starring in Theater Wit’s Christmas cash cow The Santaland Diaries, a stage version of David Sedaris’s comic memoir about playing one of Santa’s helpers at Macy’s. This year, Fain has hung up his elf tights (literally—the costume hangs on the wall of the set) to speak in his own voice. This 90-minute program of autobiographical storytelling is alternately campy and sentimental, blissful and bitchy as Fain recounts memories of growing up in a dysfunctional Jewish family in Rhode Island, then embarking on the path that eventually brought him to Chicago. Fain establishes an easy, engaging rapport with the audience as he salutes the women who have inspired him—a family friend, a beloved schoolteacher, Barbra Streisand—as well as the friends and lovers who’ve encouraged him to, as he puts it, “choose to be brave.” His reminiscences are punctuated by cabaret-style vocals from singer Meghan Murphy, who also functions as a sort of talk show-style sidekick. —Albert Williams

click to enlarge Yippee Ki-Yay Merry Christmas: A Die Hard Musical - MICHAEL SHEPHERD JORDAN
  • Yippee Ki-Yay Merry Christmas: A Die Hard Musical
  • Michael Shepherd Jordan

Yippee Ki-Yay Merry Christmas: A Die Hard Christmas Musical We parody the things we love (to paraphrase Oscar Wilde). Which is why, I suspect, the folks at MCL Chicago decided to create this energetic, relentlessly silly, musical send-up of the blockbuster 1988 action movie. Who else but a die-hard Die Hard fan would want to spend so much creative time crafting a show full of hyperfake fight scenes and tongue-in cheek ballads, megaexplosions, and over-the-top dance numbers? The result is a little rough in places: Michael Shepherd Jordan’s script too often assumes the audience knows the original by heart, and Alan Metoskie’s Bruce Willis is unconvincing, though Gary Fields’s Alan Rickman is dead-on. —Jack Helbig

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