GO  BOB BAKER'S NUTCRACKER Need a novel gift idea that'll be met with more gratitude than yet another candle or cashmere scarf? Borrow someone's children for the morning and take them to Jerry Griswold's marionette version of Tchaikovsky's ballet. Not only is the traditional staging a little tired — interpretations such as The Nutcracker Swings and Mixed Nutz prove that — but it's also a little long for wriggly kids hopped up on holiday goodies. A swift hourlong pop-up storybook of a show that lets the puppets do the dancing, this production ranks second on a kid's wish list behind only the Candy Land board game being real. Tailored to short attention spans, each song brings a new trick. Sitting around the “stage,” which is just the blue portion of the room's carpet, kids' eyes grew wide as a parade of characters trotted by, or a shadow orchestra attacked the overture, or Slinky-like flutes formed words and pictures. No matter how you feel about children, very little compares to their brand of anticipatory excitement. Near the grand finale, a disco ball throws its confetti on the floor. As “oohs” and “aahs” chimed, little hands lurched out in an effort to grab the furiously flitting lights. Sure, it's a show for them, but to this adult, the holidays seemed more magical in that hour than they had in years. Puppeteers rotate, but the cast at the performance reviewed was focused and strong. Bob Baker Marionette Theater, 1345 W. First St., dwntwn.; Tues.-Fri., 10:30 a.m., Sat.-Sun., 2:30 p.m., through Jan. 16. (213) 250-9995. (Rebecca Haithcoat)

GO  BROADWAY HOLIDAY Creator/musical director/producer/accompanist Neil Berg has assembled a rich garland of Broadway and movie showstoppers that, whether you call them old chestnuts or evergreens, are reliable crowd-pleasers. He's thrown in a choice selection of Christmas songs and recruited five seasoned Broadway pros to perform them: Carter Calvert, Jeffrey Denman, Rita Harvey, Marc Kudisch and Ivan Rutherford. All have fine voices, and the skill and savvy to deploy them to maximum effect. Harvey gives us a spectacular “I Could Have Danced All Night” and, with Rutherford, a full-bloodedly theatrical rendition of “The Phantom of the Opera.” Rutherford eloquently performs “Something's Coming” from West Side Story and “Bring Him Home” from Les Miserables. Calvert offers a poignant “Memory,” from Cats, and provides a rousing first-act finale with “Don't Rain on My Parade.” Kudisch serves up “Where Is the Life That Late I Led,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” and, with Denman, a hilariously competitive “Oh Hanukah — O Christmas Tree.” Denman calls on his nimble dancing as well as vocal skills in “Give My Regards to Broadway” and “Singin' in the Rain” and delivers a wonderfully mellow “White Christmas.” And producer Berg performs a lush piano treatment of “Carol of the Bells.” Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Wstwd.; schedule varies; check geffenplayhouse.com. Through Jan. 2. (310) 208-5454. (Neal Weaver)

DADDY LONG LEGS A classic of the “girl story” genre from the early 20th century, Jean Webster's novel is written as a series of letters from a female orphan to the mysterious benefactor who pays her way through college, insisting they never meet but that she write him once a month. This chamber theater piece, scripted by John Caird, follows the source material closely as Jerusha (Megan McGinnis) and her sponsor, Jervis (Robert Adelman Hancock), recite pieces of the correspondence, including some additional responses from Jervis not included in the original. The bulk of the production, however, consists of musicalized versions of the letters with music and lyrics by Paul Gordon. While the mise-en-scène is admirable — from David Farley's costumes and sets to Paul Toben's lighting to sincere acting and skillful singing — the event is simply unsatisfying as a piece of theater. It is mostly sung through with pretty accompaniment from musical director Julie McBride and her small orchestra, but the material itself is remarkably tedious. Though the program organizes the show into some 24 musical numbers, it feels more like one continuous recitative with very few break-out moments of melody. Dramatically it is equally placid, with just a few moments of tension relieving us from a dreary two-and-a-half-hour trajectory toward an expected outcome. Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach; Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m., Sun, 2 p.m., through Dec. 26. (949) 497-ARTS. (Tom Provenzano)

GO  DIVA ON THE VERGE In her compelling one-woman show, soprano Julia Migenes, who has sung more leading roles at more opera houses than you've had hot dinners, offers a solo show that is a true-life analog of Terrence McNally's play Master Class. However, Migenes is the real thing — a bona fide, card-carrying prima donna of the larger-than-life school — and the story of her life in art is both lighthearted and unpretentious, simultaneously celebrating opera and sending it up. For all her operatic pedigree, which includes the renowned 1984 film version of Carmen with Placido Domingo, Migenes cleverly positions herself here as an “anti-opera” opera star, with a narrative patter (credited to her and Bruce Vilanch) that spoofs various operatic traditions, while still dazzling us with renditions of the arias themselves. Thus, Migenes dons a goofy white shroud to comically satirize the over-the-top libretto of the madness scene from Lucia di Lammermoor at the same time her gorgeous coloratura rendering of the song is perfect. She jokes about the ridiculous death scenes from La Traviata and Tristan and Isolde, even as her voice hauntingly conveys the genuine feeling of the music's heightened realism. Credited to director Travis Preston, the show first played here 10 years ago; since then, the piece has evolved into a lighter, breezier work that emphasizes folksy general opera stories over Migenes' actual biography, which frankly would be welcome. When she's telling her story, Migenes exudes a sultry sophistication and a dry wit; when she sings (accompanied by Victoria Kirsch's excellently evocative piano playing), she's every bit the diva she purports to be, making this a unique and captivating experience. Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., W.L.A.; Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 7 p.m. (no perfs Dec. 24-25, Dec. 31, Jan. 6), through Jan. 9. (310) 477-2055. (Paul Birchall)


GO  THE FIRST JO-EL The Troubadour Theater Company, led by writer-director-star Matt Walker, is back at the Falcon Theatre for its annual Christmas show. This time, it's the nativity story set to 18 of Billy Joel's songs. The concocted yet sophisticated story permits them to break into song whenever possible, replacing Joel's original lyrics with their own twisted ones. Hence lyrics such as “We're having a child/But she's always a virgin to me.” Bethlehem innkeepers Nicholas and Greta (Jack McGee and Lisa Valenzuela) have a daughter, Letty (Katie Nunez), who's pregnant and still undecided on marriage to gormless Manolo (Matt Morgan). Enter the three wise men, who've become two hard-boiled wise guys, Gold (Matt Walker) and Myr (Brandon Breault), plus Frankenstein (Morgan Rusler, who also doubles as Herod), incorporating a bit of Three Stooges–style slapstick into their appearance. But when another pregnant couple from out of town shows up, it turns out there's no room at the inn for Mary and Joseph (Katherine Malack and Matt Walker). Everyone is in good voice, especially Nunez and Valenzuela. The live five-piece band keeps the hit tunes pumping out under the musical direction of drummer Eric Heinly. Especially noteworthy are Hayan Charlston's sizzling sax and clarinet performances. Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Drive, Burbank; Fri., 8 p.m., Sat., 4 & 8 p.m., Sun., 4 & 7 p.m., through Jan. 16. (Pauline Adamek)

GO  GROUNDLINGS HOLIDAY SHOW Director Damon Jones incorporates some winning ideas in this holiday-themed show, making it one of the best this reviewer has seen here in some time. By greatly increasing the number of improv sections and embellishing them with some imaginative directorial twists, Jones fully utilizes the considerable comedic talents of his cast (Jim Rash, Nat Faxon, Charlotte Newhouse, David Hoffman, Steve Little, Laird Macintosh, Jillian Bell). In one segment, cast members were asked to do improvisations according to the styles of different film directors, and the results were amazing. Jones also has thrown in some colorful costuming schemes, nowhere more apparent than in the hilarious skit “Kringle 5,” featuring Santa Claus as a space pirate battling hostile aliens and lesbian crew members. Other skits that corralled big laughs were “Nativity Scene,” where an irate boss tries to find out who ate Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the manger; “The Last Temptation,” which finds some holy folks carried away by their sensual sides; and the dangerously funny “Baby New Year,” where Steven Little, dressed in diapers, hat and pacifier, shares his own brand of holiday cheer with the audience. Groundlings Theater, 7307 Melrose Ave., W. Hlywd.; closed. (Lovell Estell III)

URNED HAPPINESS Laughter may be the best medicine when grief's symptoms won't subside, but in Ernest Kearney's thinly plotted comedy about a family's collective wacky reaction to the death of their maligned matriarch, the prescription runs out fast. Kim (Julie Mann) and Maggie (Kal Bennett) have just arrived home from their mother's funeral. We quickly learn that the deceased was as tender with her children as a lion with a steak, but the uptight Maggie struggles to maintain a proper degree of respect for the dead while Kim cracks wise. As the women grapple with their hate-tinged, guilt-ridden grief, they also fight over ownership of mom's ashes: No one wants the old lady's urn. Complicating matters are the husbands, Lloyd (Joe Corgan), who hated mom so much that he split the scene when Julie took on the caretaker role in mom's final days, and Randy (Gary Rubenstein), an emasculated wuss with no intention of honoring his browbeating late mother-in-law by agreeing to accept the urn. Kearney, who also directs, is wise to take a stab at mining the potential humor in the postmortem scenario, but the corny jokes fall flat in the hands of unpolished performances. The rising action peaks with the entrance of a clown hired to play the funeral, a groaner of a gag that clunks and creaks the second it hits the stage. T.U. Studios, 10943 Camarillo St., N. Hlywd.; Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m., Fri.-Sun., 8 p.m., through Jan. 23. (800) 838-3006. (Amy Lyons)

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