November 20, 2013

Holiday shows from KC theater companies range from offbeat to sentimental

Each year, theater companies decide what kind of entertainment to offer during the holidays. And they have three basic approaches to the holidays: observe them, ignore them or break from tradition. This year you can see all three.

Each year, Kansas City area theater companies decide — usually a year in advance — what kind of entertainment to offer during the holidays.

And they have three basic approaches to the holidays: observe them, ignore them or break from tradition.

This year you can see all three.

The No. 1 traditional show has to be Kansas City Repertory Theatre’s opulent annual production of “A Christmas Carol,” for which audiences turn out in big numbers to once again watch Ebenezer Scrooge be transformed from a money-hoarding crank into a big-spending philanthropist.

Of course, fans of dance might argue that the Kansas City Ballet’s annual production of “The Nutcracker” — with toys that come to life, human-size mice and gingerbread soldiers — is an equally popular tradition, although “Christmas Carol” offers more performances.

But the Rep this year decided to offer an additional production that resides at the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from “Christmas Carol” — “Santaland Diaries,” a one-man show adapted from David Sedaris’ famous radio essay about his experience working as an “elf” at Macy’s, a seasonal job in which he, on a given day, saw “fist fights, vomiting and magnificent tantrums.”

Other tradition-minded companies include Quality Hill Playhouse, which each year stages a new collection of music under the title of “Christmas in Song,” and Musical Theater Heritage, which goes after a similar audience with “A Spectacular Christmas.”

Leading the unconventional pack is the Owen/Cox Dance Group with its annual production of “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” which this year will be at Johnson County Community College. The jazz-oriented score, performed by members of the People’s Liberation Big Band, is derived from Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s themes, but the story onstage is weirder and darker than anything you might encounter elsewhere during the holidays.

“The idea was to return to the original E.T.A. Hoffmann story, which is more bizarre than what we think of as the traditional ‘Nutcracker,’” Brad Cox said.

The piece is now in its fifth year as a dance performance. In the two preceding years it was performed in concert.

“Audience response was very positive the first time we did it,” Cox said. “I think people knew what they were signing on for.”

Cox chuckled as he conceded the irony of placing “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” in the “nontraditional” column after it has been attracting audiences for five years.

“For some people, anyway, it’s a tradition,” he said. “We do have people who go every year.”

Angela Gieras, executive director of KC Rep, said the decision to stage “Santaland Diaries” was driven in part by the desire to reach younger audiences.

“We know that ‘Christmas Carol’ is a very popular show for people, and we are looking for ways to encourage new and different audiences into the theater during the holidays and make us part of their tradition,” Gieras said.

The decision seems to have paid off. Gieras said ticket sales for “Santaland Diaries” have been brisk — so brisk that the Rep has added three performances.

“It’s a great option for people who ‘Christmas Carol’ might not appeal to,” she said. “They’re looking for something a little irreverent, and ‘Santaland’ fits that.”

And could the irreverent Sedaris piece become its own tradition?

“There’s a possibility of us bringing it back if it’s successful,” Gieras said.

“Santaland” isn’t new to Kansas City audiences. Ron Megee performed it at the Unicorn for three years. And in 2011 the company staged “The Salvation of Iggy Scrooge,” a rock ’n’ roll send-up of “A Christmas Carol.”

But this year the company is staging “Clybourne Park,” Bruce Norris’ satirical companion piece to Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun.” It has absolutely nothing to do with the holidays.

“I love to do a show that’s not about the holidays,” artistic director Cynthia Levin said. “We don’t all celebrate the same holiday. And when nine out of 10 choices is about a specific holiday, it gets a little tiring.

“If there’s a show like ‘Inspecting Carol’ or ‘Iggy Scrooge,’ which is a satirical take on the holidays, that’s wonderful. But picking ‘Clybourne Park’ was like, ‘OK, it has nothing to do with the holidays, but it’s a great show.’”

Still, Levin said there are certain guidelines when choosing a play to stage during the holidays.

“I want to present an alternative,” she said. “That’s part of my mission. But I learned many years ago not to do a deeply depressing, traumatic show at Christmas. People don’t want to see that. You don’t want to be too bleak, but you can be interesting and dramatic.”

Out at the New Theatre in Overland Park, a holiday-themed show during the holidays is exceedingly rare. This year the company is producing the vintage comedy “Never Too Late” with George Wendt and Bernadette Birkett. Co-owner Richard Carrothers said he thought there was a good balance in Kansas City between traditional holiday entertainment and non-holiday choices.

“I think if we did something with a Christmas theme it would throw the balance off,” Carrothers said. “I think in these economic times people have to play to their strong suit. It’s called survival. I definitely know this — for years we haven’t done holiday programming, and we have a solid December box office. So that kind of programming is working in our marketplace.”

Conversely, Quality Hill Playhouse has presented a version of “Christmas in Song” for 17 years. Executive director J. Kent Barnhart changes the musical selections each year, but don’t expect the show itself to go away.

“I’ve probably got a thousand Christmas songs that I’ve bought over the years,” he said. “Every year I try to find something new and different but this year we’re picking the most popular songs we’ve done during those 17 years. I think it’s successful for a number of reasons. First of all, it has real Christmas music in it. And it’s an affordable ticket.”

The Coterie, which aims its programming at kids, teens and young adults, used to have a tradition of staging a version of “Winnie the Pooh” during the holidays. Then for several years it staged plays based on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, some of which had explicit Christmas themes.

This year, however, the company is going for a hipper sensibility by bringing back “The Wiz,” the Broadway musical based on “The Wizard of Oz,” which it first staged in 2011.

“The old thinking at the Coterie was that in the ‘Winnie the Pooh’ and ‘Little House’ days, we relied on the same shows during the holidays,” artistic director Jeff Church said. “But we had a great success with ‘Shrek’ last Christmas. and that was not holiday. ‘The Wiz’ is not holiday.

“However, we will be going back to a holiday show a year from now. Sometimes it just works out that at Christmas time, November and December, we like to put a really artistic foot forward with something that really is a family event. And often I need a musical to do that. And I don’t want to limit myself by having Christmas as the only choice.”

Bobblehead Scrooge

Kansas City Repertory Theatre, in an ongoing effort to make its presence felt in the community, this year has adopted a new promotional tool: Bobblehead Scrooge, who has been making the rounds of notable KC landmarks. The Rep is photographing his travels and posting them on its Facebook page at Executive director Angel Gieras said 500 of the little guys will be given to the first 500 ticket holders at the Dec. 4 performance of “A Christmas Carol.”

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