Friday, December 5, 2008

Your Jolly Christmas Show Sampler

(Rockettes as rag dolls in Santa's workshop)

Are you looking for a way to start brimming with joyous holiday spirits? Start by filling your wassail cup to overflowing (3 parts Rum, two parts eggnog—oh hell, forget the eggnog). And then program the song “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen/We Three Kings” by the Barenaked Ladies with Sarah McLachlan (the coolest carol ever) on an endless loop. Presto, you’re almost an elf already!

Hey, even if the glow this year is dimmed a bit by the fact that our jobs and savings are circling the drain (ho, ho, freaking ho), it’s time to celebrate the season and haul yourself out to the holiday theatrical productions around town.

For the third time in recent years, PlayhouseSquare is presenting the Radio City Christmas Spectacular, starring the Rockettes of legendary high-kicking fame. The evening is a loose collection of singing and dancing vignettes emceed by none other than Santa, and it’s a cornball extravaganza that will dazzle the little ones and even amuse crotchety oldsters.

Although this version of the Rockettes has only 22 women, as opposed to the traditional line of 36, these leggy gals operate with a degree of precision that is astounding to behold. This blog has, in the past, made sport of audiences who clap like Pavlov’s pooches every time two or more people do a series of high kicks on stage. But in this show, the volleys of applause are well earned.

Whether they are tapping their tails off in “The Twelve Days of Christmas” or kicking up a storm as a matched set of rag dolls, the Rockettes perform with such synchronicity it looks computer generated. And when they execute the slow motion backwards collapse that concludes the amazing “Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,” a bit that has been performed every year since the troupe’s founding in 1933, you recognize the true definition of a show stopper.

The Rockettes are joined by more than a dozen other singers and dancers, as well as four little people who play elves, dancing baby teddy bears and dancing snowmen. If all this sounds a bit twee for your tastes, the rockin’ Rockettes always manage to bring the show back into focus.

There are several less than sterling elements, including a Santa (Scott Willis) who is a bit too young and too thin (even with padding) to convey the true essence of Old St. Nick. And the Christmas-ornament backdrops now and then look a bit tacky, like discount Christmas card artwork.

Another tradition of this show is the final scene depicting a “Living Nativity,” complete with camels, sheep and a massive crèche. While this rather somber scene is costumed to the hilt, it seems overly didactic (yeah, we get it, the real meaning of Christmas), complete with scrolling copy on a screen that is also delivered by voice-over. The earnestness is admirable, but it doesn’t exactly send the audience out humming a tune.

Of course, there are other Christmas shows in production, just like every year. But unlike every other year, this reviewer is not filing specific reviews of those shows this season. Fact is, I’ve run out of things to say, after reviewing them over and over.

But if you’re unfamiliar, or you need a memory jog, here’s a capsule look:

A Christmas Story at the Cleveland Play House
This stage version of the sweet and wittily nostalgic movie (Ralphie and his “You’ll shoot your eye out!” air rifle) is a sure-fire treat. And Charles Kartali as Dad has steadily improved his ability to swear without ever saying a definable cuss word, as he grapples with his beastly coal-fired furnace.

A Christmas Carol at the Great Lakes Theater Festival
It’s a stellar production that embodies all the humor, fright and ultimate moral lesson of the Dicken’s novel. While the production is different than the classic Alastair Sim movie, accomplished actor Aled Davies will no doubt bring a new approach to Scrooge, a role handled in previous years by Dudley Swetland.

Black Nativity at Karamu House
As directed and choreographed by Terence Greene, this show is a rich, boisterous and often profound retelling of the birth of Christ. The gospel music and the dance sequences alone are worth the price of admission.

The Santaland Diaries at Cleveland Public Theater
Yes, Crumpet the Elf is back, this time in the guise of Sean Booker. But all the David Sedaris witticisms are still in place as we experience what it feels like to be Santa’s helper in Macy’s Christmas fairyland. (And let’s not mince words, fairies are involved here.)

Enjoy…and have a great HOLIDAY! (Eat it, Bill O’Reilly.)

Radio City Christmas Spectacular, through Dec. 28 at the State Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, 1518 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000

A Christmas Story, through Dec. 21 at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue, 216-795-7000

A Christmas Carol, through Dec. 23 at the Ohio Theatre, PlayhouseSquare, produced by the Great Lakes Theater Festival, 216-241-6000

Black Nativity, through Dec. 28 at Karamu House, 2355 east 89th Street, 216-795 7077

The Santaland Diaries, through Dec. 20 at the Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue, 216-631-2727

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