A cursory glance at last week's L.A. Weekly theater reviews reveals a typical early-December harvest of local holiday-themed shows but without, shall we say, the typical level of enthusiasm for this most traditional and surefire source of seasonal box office revenue.
Call it a collective yawn.
The best that critic Pauline Adamek can muster for ZJU's late-night Christmas Thrills and High Adventure is the backhanded superlative, “short and sweet.” Neal Weaver hammers a coffin lid on The Celebration's Christmastime is Queer with pejorative nails like “fitfully funny” and “essentially bland.” Rebecca Haithcoat roasts the chestnuts of Archway Theatre's The Many Murders of Kristopher K. Kringle as being timid and “not especially inventive.” And I compare Jason Moyer's Dickens update, Gay Apparel: A Christmas Carol, to “lumps of coal in a Christmas stocking.”
In some quarters, this Scrooge-like dearth of “GO” recommendations has raised quizzical tweets questioning whether this rather grim reaping is a mere statistical anomaly, a case of chronic critic burnout or whether it portends a more profoundly troubling trend in the Yuletide arts. Could it be that L.A.'s holiday-stage zeitgeist has somehow given up the creative Christmas ghost?
Although some historians argue that Christmas theater was born with Saint Francis of Assisi's 1223 Midnight Mass performed in front of a life-sized nativity crèche (replete with live animals!), few would question that the true paternity of the modern secular Christmas show belongs to Charles Dickens's ingratiatingly mawkish, 1843 compendium of Victorian holiday kitsch, A Christmas Carol. Adaptations of this opiate for the industrial underclass, which undoubtedly began trodding the London boards before the printer's ink was even dry, are outnumbered on L.A. stages only by the nightmarish profusion of Nutcrackers, whose dubious, saccharine-plum pleasures happily lie outside of the purview of this blog.
For those who like their Dickens straight, no chaser, Hal Landon, Jr., reprises his Scrooge in the Jerry Patch-adapted, John-David Keller-directed, big-stage version currently running at SCR. Those who prefer it flavored in a more musical vernacular may want to take a chance on Katrina Wood's Bob Cratchit & Mr. Tightwad at NoHo's Secret Rose Theatre. Playgoers who insist on having their Dickensian tropes slathered with the syrup of feel-good, small-town Americana have had three adaptations of Frank Capra's copyright-orphaned It's a Wonderful Life from which to choose, including a star-studded, Bart DeLorenzo-directed one-off at the Geffen. And for those who want it every which way, there is It's a Wonderful Christmas Carol: A Holiday Parody Combo at Long Beach's All American Melodrama Theater and Music Hall.
But what's out there for we few, we unhappy few, who have had our nuts cracked once too often by groveling Cratchits, grotesquely good-natured Tiny Tims or insufferably simpering George Baileys? Where are the shows for and by those whose Christmas-weary worldview is in unsentimental lockstep with the clear-eyed and rational Ebenezer Scrooge of Christmas Eve morning? Could catharsis finally come with The Christmas Present, playwright-director Guy Picot 's black holiday comedy at Sacred Fools? Or perhaps Joe Marshall's promising-sounding The Gayest Christmas Pageant Ever! at the Avery Schreiber will finally bring surcease.
The real hard cases can always fall back on a tried-and-true L.A. tradition — Rob Elk and Joe Keyes's riotously profane and bent holiday bacchanal, Bob's Holiday Office Party, back for its 16th season, this year at the Hudson. But this curmudgeon's money is riding on director Matt Walker and those masters of the incongruous musical mash-up, the Troubadour Theater Company. This year the Troubies promise to exorcise the ghosts of Christmas Present by upping the ante on St. Francis' nativity menagerie in The First Jo-el, their all-Billy Joel retelling of the first Christmas, and A Christmas Westside Story, combining two beloved classics.
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