LA Stage Times
December 16, 2013

Four Variations on Christmas Carol and Three Other Holiday Shows

by Don Shirley

Would you believe that the most traditional Christmas Carol that I saw, over a weekend that included four productions with components inspired by the Charles Dickens story, was the simply titled A Christmas Carol at...

Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre?

I avoided this year's versions of the usual traditional Christmas Carols at South Coast Repertory and A Noise Within, because my ultimate goal wasn't to see Christmas Carols. It was to sample the range of holiday-specific theater, not to focus on one particular narrative or even on Christmas per se.

But then I found elements of A Christmas Carol lurking inside productions with completely different titles, such as Walkin' in a Winter One-Note Wonderland and Christmas 2.

I give up. Clearly Dickens wrote the most gripping Christmas-related narrative of all time — perhaps except for the one in the New Testament. But because one's reaction to the New Testament story depends a lot on the degree to which one is a believing Christian, it isn't surprising that theater companies — most of which have no particular religious orientation — explore other options.

And among those other options, how can anyone hope to top the story of a bad man becoming good, transformed by a series of visitations from scary nocturnal spirits who nonetheless show him what's really important in life? Religious belief is an extremely negligible element within A Christmas Carol, which is about a human being who discovers a much broader definition of his humanity.

On the other hand, the December theater scene would be truly boring if no one strayed from Christmas Carol orthodoxy. Even Zombie Joe's surprisingly straightforward Christmas Carol is preceded by a round of caroling from a twitching, steam-punked group (the "Steam-Punk Carolers") who initially indicate that this won't be your grandparents' Carol (watch what happens when they sing the word "Satan" during "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen ").

But then the production shifts gears as the prelude ends and the classic tale begins. Everything suddenly looks as we expect A Christmas Carol to look (albeit on a Tiny-Tim-sized theater budget). The production on the ZJU stage — essentially one corner of a black box — is crisper and faster than most, ending within an hour. But while it reaches the tale's heart without wallowing in excessive sentiment, it may well leave you resolving to be a better person. Yes, again, this is at Zombie Joe's (and Zombie himself appears as Marley's Ghost, as Fezziwig and as the undertaker).

Just around the corner from ZJU in Noho, at T.U. Studios, is Christmas 2, which has the most audacious concept of any of the productions that I saw over the weekend. Yet it's also the production that's least ready for prime time.

Jeff Goode, who created a franchise with his The Eight: Reindeer Monologues over the last two decades, this year shifted his iconoclasm from the Santa Claus tale to the nativity story itself. Apparently SkyPilot Theatre is a company that doesn't buy into the reluctance of most theaters to tackle the original Christmas source material.

Goode actually sets his tale 30 years after the birth of Jesus — but before Jesus has begun his ministry. He's leading an incognito life because the Romans haven't forgotten the "newborn king" rumors of 30 years ago and have a price on his head. He has married Magdalene and works as a veterinarian, which gives him a chance to tend to one of the sheep who was there on the night he was born.

I won't belabor the details, as Goode's script does. Bbut let's just say that the script includes visits from Jesus' comically stereotypical Jewish mother, from one of the three kings of the Orient and his nagging wife, from the above-mentioned sheep's nearly blind shepherdess, from a Roman centurion and — here's the Christmas Carol element — from Santa Claus, who assumes the role of all three Dickensian spirits as he demonstrates to Jesus what was, what is, and what might yet happen.

Does this sound like one cluttered and therefore clunky satire? It is. If Goode wants to develop this into another Eight-like franchise during Christmases to come, the rewrites should begin soon. The first step should probably be to find someone with an outside eye who can be a more objective, uh, shepherd for this script, and toss out the sections that just don't work — I'd start with the talking sheep and blind shepherdess. In fact, it's a miracle that the production is as sharp and as occasionally funny as it is, given the sometimes inchoate and long-winded state of the script. Why wasn't this a not-ready-for-critics workshop?

Let's move on to the other production that includes Christmas Carol elements but not within its title — Troubadour Theater Company's Walkin' in a Winter One-Note Wonderland.

The Troubies, of course, are LA theater's experts at combining familiar stories with tunes from very different but also familiar pop music sources — usually one pop group per show — in order to create the kind of fast-paced, well-focused satires that keep the laughs comin' in a way that is far beyond the current capacities of Christmas 2.

However, occasionally the Troubies have altered their formula to include the music from a number of different "one-hit wonder" groups within the same show. This policy is adopted in the current show, as can be discerned from the title. But even when this happens, the scripts usually still focus on one central story.

Yet in the current Walkin', the Troubies initially appear to have dropped the second half of their formula in order to celebrate their 10th anniversary at the Falcon Theatre with a retrospective of their previous holiday shows at the Falcon in a cabaret-style format, with no immediately apparent central story.

Midway through this exercise, however, the Winter Warlock (Beth Kennedy), a familiar supporting player in many Troubie holiday shows, momentarily takes center stage, only to be humiliated by video evidence that his particular bag of tricks has become, uh, somewhat repetitive. The Warlock rashly decides to quit the Troubies — only to be persuaded to return after receiving a Christmas Carol-like journey through past, present and future.

This isn't an ideal show with which to begin an acquaintance with the Troubies. I would guess that those who have never seen the Troubies might find it a somewhat bafflingly self-referential spectacle. Of course the Troubies have acquired such a loyal audience of longtime fans, who are capable of selling out the Falcon runs without recruiting newcomers, that most of the audience members probably won't be Troubie newbies. And longtime Troubie fans probably will be delighted, as usual, by Walkin' — for their knowledge of some of the previous Troubie shows more or less confirms their membership within the Troubie community, as if they're at a really entertaining holiday office party or family reunion.

The other show I saw this weekend that is structured around A Christmas Carol includes those three words within its own bulky title The Second City's “A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens!” This is the second edition of Center Theatre Group's holiday attraction at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, by Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort, staged by Marc Warzecha. I wasn't impressed by last year's debut. Fortunately I had forgotten most of the details, but when I looked at a few of the longer reviews from last year after seeing this year's, I noticed that most of the jokes and other specifics from last year that were mentioned in those reviews seem to have been recycled this year.

However, a CTG spokesman says “the script has been tweaked throughout, so very few scenes are exactly as they were last year.” As far as completely added material, more moments have been added in which a heckler interrupts the proceedings and in which audience-written confessions of “misdeeds” are inserted into the script. Also, “the end of act one and top of act two are completely different.”

I'll refrain from passing further judgment on the show this year, because I arrived about five minutes late and had to watch the next few minutes of the show on the TV screen in the lobby, where it's difficult to hear all the words (I did read the script later to find out what I missed). However, I can't resist mentioning the irony of seeing a brief bit that pokes fun at the ironic stance of Silver Lake hipsters in a show that is almost entirely based on an ironic attitude.

I hope CTG isn't planning to keep recycling much of this same material year after year. Parodies of the original, unlike A Christmas Carol itself, do not usually hold up well in re-runs.

Back in a now-distant day, Center Theatre Group had another annual holiday tradition — a non-musical adaptation of Truman Capote's A Christmas Memory in its Itchey Foot cabaret. Yesterday I ventured to Laguna Playhouse to see A Christmas Memory again, but this time it's in a new-to-the-area musical version, by composer Larry Grossman and lyricist Carol Hall, with a book by Duane Poole.

A Christmas Memory doesn't have a narrative drive that comes close to that of A Christmas Carol. It takes place from the adult perspective of Buddy, a man remembering a childhood Christmas, as he had lived it with three adult cousins in small-town Alabama during the Depression. Two of these cousins threaten to ship him off to a military academy after the holidays, but his cross-generational relationship with the third, Sook — who serves as his favorite playmate — is at the heart of his memories. This story isn't nearly as funny as those by Jean Shepherd that were assembled into the movie A Christmas Story, but it's more or less in the same nostalgic genre.

The musical Christmas Memory is too elongated for its own good — why the intermission? But it ends on a genuinely heartwarming note that isn't too far removed from that of A Christmas Carol itself. Laguna has placed this Memory in the capable hands of director Nick DeGruccio, and a cast of seasoned professionals and musical director Darryl Archibald makes it sing. It's good to see Laguna again bringing something new, or at least newish, to the LA scene.

Meanwhile, Pasadena Playhouse is offering a holiday panto from Lythgoe Family Productions for the second year in a row. This year's is titled Aladdin and His Winter Wish, although it has very little connection to anything wintry. It's essentially the familiar Aladdin story, dotted with sung-and-danced covers of pop songs that have some tentative connection to what's happening in the story, as well as vaudeville-style humor. We’re told that it will never snow in the desert until Aladdin wishes for it, and at the end, machines send streams of artificial snow into parts of the audience — as if to say '"see? There is something wintry here after all."

Hey, it's panto — a genre in which almost anything goes, so why not? Aladdin is full of high-spirited performances, from Ben Vereen and Bruce Vilanch as well as its young leads, Jordan Fisher and Ashley Argota. It's probably the most family-friendly of all the shows I've seen in the past week, and at least on opening night, the audience included plenty of kids.

A Christmas Carol, Zombie Joe's Underground Theatre, 4850 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Sat 8:30 pm, Sun 7 pm. Ends Sunday. 818-202-4120.

Christmas 2, T.U. Studios, 10943 Camarillo St., North Hollywood. Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Closes Sunday. 800-838-3006.

Walkin' in a Winter One-Note Wonderland, Falcon Theatre, 4252 Riverside Dr., Burbank. Wed-Sat 8 pm, Sun 4 pm and 7 pm. Plus Sat Dec 28 and Jan 4 at 4 pm. Dark Dec 25 and Jan 1, with no 7 pm shows on Jan 12 or 19. Closes at the Jan 19 matinee. 818-955-8101.

The Second City's “A Christmas Carol: Twist Your Dickens!”, Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tue-Wed 8 pm, Thu 7 pm and 10 pm, Fri 8 pm, Sat 5 pm and 9 pm, Sun 3 pm and 7 pm. Mon Dec 23 8 pm. Dark Dec 24-25. Closes Dec 29. 213-628-2772.

A Christmas Memory, Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. Tue-Fri 7:30 pm, Sat 2 pm and 7:30 pm, Sun 2 pm. Extra performances: Dec 19 2 pm, Dec 23, 7:30 pm, Dec 24 4 pm, Dec 26 2 pm, Dec 29 7 pm. No performances at 7 pm on Dec 24 or on Dec 25. Closes Dec 29. 949-497-2787.

Aladdin and His Winter Wish, Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Thu-Fri 3 pm and 7 pm, Sat 11 am, 3 pm and 7 pm, Sun 11 am and 3 pm. Plus Tues Dec 24 3 pm. Closes Dec. 29. 626-356-7529.

Finally, I'd like to mention once again a Christmas-season show I already wrote about, Tom Dudzick’s Miracle on South Division Street at the Colony. It closed yesterday, so I no longer feel quite so restrained from referring to the big secret within its plot — it's about a Catholic family's discovery of its partially Jewish roots.

As such, it's that rare holiday show that might have appealed to Jews as much as to non-Jews — perhaps even more. But it wasn't marketed that way, out of fear of spoiling the revelation of its secret for those theatergoers who found it. That's too bad, because any superficial description of its plot makes it sound ultra-Catholic.

Maybe someone will produce it again next December, which it deserves and which might be even more appropriate, as Hanukkah will be in its customary position closer to Christmas instead of coinciding with Thanksgiving (as it did this year). Perhaps Jewish theatergoers should make a note — if another production of Miracle comes around, try to remember that it has Jewish content. But please don't remember exactly what the nature of that content is.