How does that upbeat holiday tune go? “It’s the most wonderful time of the year”? If you’re a theater fan and a devotee of holiday cheer, that’s the song you’re humming. Local theater companies produce shows designed to provide audiences with seasonal fare, many (although not all) G-rated. Each hopes to catch your fancy at a time of year when socializing and entertainment top everyone’s agenda.
The star on the top of the tree is A Christmas Carol at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, back for its 22nd year. I’ve seen other renditions of Charles Dickens’ 1843 familiar tale of Ebenezer Scrooge and the ghosts who give him a chance to reform his miserly ways, and I can tell you that none is better than Howard Dallin’s adaptation and the lavish staging the Playhouse gives it. This one captures the spirit of the story and dazzles with stagecraft. It’s performed by excellent local professionals, including Bruce Cromer, now in his eighth year as Scrooge (after seven years as Bob Cratchit). You really can’t go wrong with this one. It’s an excellent choice for the kids, despite a few scary moments — especially Greg Procaccino as Jacob Marley’s Ghost. If you haven’t seen it, you should; if you have, you’re likely to go back. (Nov. 29-Dec. 30; 513-421-3888, cincyplay.com)
Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati has succeeded with a different kind of annual holiday tradition, offering musicalized versions of fairy tales with a fresh modern spin that kids can grasp. ETC has an array of these shows to cycle through; this year’s offering, Alice in Wonderland, is one of the best. With a script by local playwright Joe McDonough full of tongue-in-cheek humor for adults and charming songs by Cincinnati composer David Kisor (he’s written several new numbers for 2012), these shows are always fun. ETC teams its talented intern acting company with a collection of regular pros who excel in selected roles, especially Deb Girdler as an over-the-top villainess (the Queen of Hearts in Alice) and Michael Bath (he’s the befuddled White Rabbit). (Nov. 28-Dec. 30; 513-421-3555, ensemblecincinnati.org)
On a much smaller scale, but aimed straight at anyone who loves holiday movies, is Falcon Theater’s rendition of It’s a Wonderful Life. Performed in the tiny Monmouth Theatre in Newport, this is a faithful rendition of the classic film about George Bailey and Bedford Falls. But it’s presented as a radio play with sound effects you can watch and actors playing multiple roles. (Dec. 7-15; 513-479-6783, falcontheater.net)
Other shows, definitely not for the kids, cast a wry look on the holidays. Don’t be fooled by the titles: These are for grown-ups. Chief among them is Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s Every Christmas Story Ever Told – And Then Some!, a mash-up of Dickens, the Grinch, Frosty, Rudolph and many more. It’s done with a few comic twists and a very drunk Santa, a formula that attracts groups of friends and office outings. Cincy Shakes has moved Every Christmas Story from its previous holiday home (Arnold’s Bar & Grill) to its own mainstage (Dec. 16-30; 513-381-2273, cincyshakes.com).
New this season at Arnold’s will be The Naughty List, under the auspices of Know Theatre. OTR Improv will take audience suggestions and filter them through holiday movies. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday evenings. (Dec. 2-30; 513-300-5669, knowtheatre.com).
New Edgecliff Theatre has moved The Santaland Diaries to a new venue, the Aronoff Center’s Fifth Third Bank Theater. David Sedaris’s sardonic monologue about working as an elf at Macy’s is hilarious (played by Brian Griffin this year), but, again, not for the kids. It’s paired for the first time with Ginna Hoben’s The 12 Dates of Christmas, a new monologue featuring Annie Kalahurka. (Nov. 29-Dec. 8; 513-621-2787, newedgecliff.com)
Several theaters offer shows that are intended to match up with seasonal moods, even if they lack holiday content. That would include the Covedale Center (513-241-6550, cincinnatilandmarkproductions.com), this year staging Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella (originally created for television), and Oscar Wilde’s witty classic, The Importance of Being Earnest at Cincinnati Shakespeare (Nov. 29-Dec. 16, 513-381-2273). If you’re seeking good entertainment without all the cheer, the Playhouse’s smaller Shelterhouse stage has Hank Williams: Lost Highway, a compilation of songs by the legendary Country Western singer. It’s not an upbeat tale — Williams drank himself to death at 29 — but a great cast authentically and entertainingly performs his hits. (Through Dec. 30; 513-421-3888)
And while you’re thinking about holiday entertainment, don’t forget that these theaters offer gift certificates and flex-passes that make great holiday gifts for people who love going to the theater. ©