It’s the time of year when theaters hope to strike holiday gold with shows that will deliver lots of ticket revenue — enough to provide the funds needed for the second half of their seasons. The hands-down winner, of course, is Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the patron saint of balanced theater budgets. Since 1991 the Cincinnati Playhouse has benefited from a beautiful and heartfelt production that features some of the best professional actors in Greater Cincinnati Dec. 3-30. See more on the Playhouse's production below in "Adding Up A Christmas Carol."
If you care to see another version of the classic, you can travel to Dayton’s Human Race Theatre Company, where an adaptation by Leigh Allen and Scott Stoney will be presented (Dec. 10-27) at the Loft Theatre.
Other familiar stories are served up by several local theaters. The Covedale Center for the Performing Arts presents Miracle on 34th Street (Dec. 3-20), proving the reality of Santa Claus (aka Kris Kringle) for West Side audiences. Falcon Productions takes us to Bedford Falls for It’s a Wonderful Life (Dec. 4-13) via Newport’s Monmouth Theater in a creatively conceived version that’s presented as a radio drama. While David Sedaris’ irreverence is not exactly a tradition, it’s hard to deny the fun that’s inherent in his Santaland Diaries, the hilarious recounting of an experience as a seasonal elf working at a Macy’s Christmas display in New York City. New Edgecliff Theatre has offered this show for several years, paired with another Sedaris piece, Seasons Greetings, and they’ll present the double-bill again this year (Dec. 4-19).
In a similar vein, the wacky Every Christmas Story Ever Told, which has become a holiday staple from Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, will be back in the courtyard at Arnold’s Bar & Grill (Dec. 13-22). It’s a hodgepodge of stories like Rudolph, the Grinch, Frosty and more — with dark, wry undertones including a distinct bias against Charles Dickens and a Santa who drinks a tad too much.
Two more franchises worth checking out this season are holiday editions of shows with tried and true audience appeal. Earlier this month the Playhouse began a long run of Sanders Family Christmas: More Smoke on the Mountain (through Dec. 31), the fifth time the sweetly humorous Gospel singers have raised the roof at the Shelterhouse. (The holiday version of the show was a bestseller for the Playhouse in 1999.) At Northern Kentucky University, the Commonwealth Theatre Company will present a dinner theater production of Nuncrackers: The Nunsense Christmas Musical (Dec. 17-23), based on the popular musicals (there are five in all) about a convent of nuns who get themselves into and out of hot water with lots of laughter along the way.
Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati has a longstanding tradition of reinvented fairytales for family audiences during the holidays. This year they’ll bring back Sleeping Beauty (Dec. 2-Jan. 3), another lovely musical with a message by playwright Joe McDonough and composer David Kisor. The show is affectionately remembered from its 2000 premiere and a 2005 revival, especially for the performance by local professional actress Deb Girdler, who plays Wisteria, the cranky, 6-foot-tall fairy with twigs in her hair who makes life difficult for everyone. Girdler will reprise the role, one of her best for ETC.
Also offering family-oriented musicals is Jersey Productions, presenting Once Upon a Mattress (Dec. 11-19 at the Aronoff’s Jarson-Kaplan Theatre), the charmingly humorous 1959 musical that retells the story of the princess and the pea. (The original was a vehicle for Carol Burnett.) And if you need to be reminded this time of year that Charles Dickens did write a few other stories, check out the 1960 musical Oliver (Dec. 11-27 at the Carnegie in Covington), set in Victorian London replete with winsome orphans, loveable pickpockets, good-hearted patrons and a truly black-hearted villain.
Several local theaters offer productions that aren’t holiday shows in terms of subject matter but will fill an evening quite nicely if your party schedule has an open night. Cincinnati Shakespeare Company presents the classic battle of the sexes, The Taming of the Shrew (through Jan. 3) with Petruchio converting Kate into a dutiful wife — perhaps.
Finally, Know Theatre is bringing a new work to local audiences, Sideways Stories from Wayside School (Through Dec. 26), adapted by John Olive from children’s stories by Louis Sachar. This one sounds like fun, full of strange encounters and skewed adventures as five students explore their misconstructed school. Instead of 30 classrooms side by side, Wayside has been built 30 stories tall with one classroom atop the next (except for the mysteriously forgotten 19th floor), each storey with its own story. The production is directed by Jason Ballweber, from Minneapolis, who has appeared twice at the Cincinnati Fringe Festival as a member of Four Humors Theatre Company.
Adding Up A Christmas Carol
It’s been 166 years since Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. But there’s considerable local history to be totaled up as the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park presents its annual holiday production for Tristate audiences for the 19th consecutive year this Dec. 3-30.
Dickens’ book was an instant success in 1843, priced at just five shillings. Today the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s Christmas Eve redemption is not only a holiday staple, it’s the financial savior of theaters across the United States. There’s scarcely a regional theater in America that doesn’t benefit from a version of Scrooge and his ghosts, generating revenue that supports the balance of the season. The Playhouse’s version, written by Howard Dallin, is one of the best.
Tickets today are a bit more than five shillings — $25 to $67 depending on the date and seat location — but that hasn't affected attendance. Through 18 seasons, since 1991, there have been 692 performances with a total attendance of 411,986, which is an astounding 95 percent of the Marx Theatre’s seats. With another 35 performances scheduled for 2009, that number will again grow.
To provide a sense of the impact of this production on the local theater scene: 314 actors have appeared in A Christmas Carol over the years, including 10 Tiny Tims. (Rick Jackson II and J. Patrick Naylor each played the role for three years.) This year, 22 of the show’s 29 actors are local, including nine children, some of whom come back year after year to play progressively older roles.
Michael Evan Haney spent the first two years of the show as Scrooge’s put-upon clerk Bob Cratchit. Now the Playhouse’s associate artistic director, Haney is directing the show for the 17th consecutive year. Bruce Cromer, who has played Scrooge since 2005, warmed up for that role with eight years as Cratchit.
Greg Procaccino has been involved longer than any other actor, appearing in every production since 1991. He has played nine different roles: Jacob Marley, Old Joe, Young Jacob, Schoolmaster Oxlip, Percy, Sosser, Dick Wilkins, the Undertaker’s Assistant and the Poulterer.
If you care to swell the statistics this season, check out show times and buy tickets here.