Shopping around for holiday entertainment in Seattle can be as trying as a trip to an overcrowded mall. While the abundance of holiday performances from which to choose is certainly appreciated, narrowing the list down to a core group of must-see shows presents a challenge. The following is a selection of the best bets for 2011, from dance to traditional theatrical favorites to musical extravaganzas.
The Best Christmas Pageant Ever
“The Herdmans were the worst kids in the whole history of the world,” narrator Beth Bradley informs the audience at the outset of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. Not only do these young hellions of the white trash persuasion lie, steal, swear, and smoke cigars, they’ve never set foot inside a church — that is, until they show up in search of free snacks and wind up part of the annual Christmas pageant. They contrive to get themselves cast in all the lead roles, from Joseph and Mary to the Wisemen, by bullying the other kids into shunning the pageant auditions. While the six monster siblings are busy taking over the show, they gradually bring their own better natures to the surface, along with the darker side of the church elite.
Based on the 1972 children’s book by Barbara Robinson, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever made its world premiere at Seattle Children’s Theatre in 1982. The book was something of a Generation X rite of passage, showing up on public library shelves every December, often accompanied by the book’s tag line, “Hey! Unto you a child is born!” Tackling sticky issues of social ostracism, poverty and religious hypocrisy in a surprisingly family-friendly format, both the book and the play manage to present a holiday message that borders on, but never falls into, sentimentality. The play has been a holiday mainstay at Seattle Public Theater for several years, and is directed by the company’s artistic director, Shana Bestock.
If you go: The Best Christmas Pageant Ever runs Dec 9-24. $15-$27. For tickets, visit www.seattlepublictheater.org.
Fifty years after opening on Broadway in December 1961, it looked like Seattle’s annual production of Black Nativity, produced by moribund Intiman Theatre, would sink quietly into oblivion. Instead, the all-African-American “gospel song play” by Harlem Renaissance poet and playwright Langston Hughes has been taken over by Seattle Theatre Group, nonprofit owner of the Neptune, Paramount, and Moore theaters.
More a high-energy holiday celebration than a concert or standard-issue musical, Black Nativity draws on gospel’s roots in traditional African music, slaves’ songs, and 19th century Christian hymns. Expect a fair amount of kente cloth intermingled with choir robes, and a fearless enthusiasm for bringing current social issues on stage, alongside the familiar Christmas crèche.
Though the show has a new producer and is making only its second appearance outside the close quarters of Intiman’s Seattle Center theater, the show’s director, Jacqueline Moscou, plans to keep the production infused with its inimitable interactive and communal spirit. Eschewing out of town actors for local gospel singers gleaned from church choirs around town, the show will retain the musical direction of Seattle’s undisputed queen of gospel, Patrinell Wright, founder of the 38-year old Total Experience Gospel Choir. After winning over 150 awards and touring 28 countries, the local choir is one of the top in the nation.
If you go: Black Nativity runs Dec. 8-24 at the Moore Theater. $25-$55. For tickets, visit www.stgpresents.org.
A Christmas Carol
Charles Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol, which came out in time for Christmas in 1843, is the prototypical spiritual-but-not-religious Christmas tale. Lampooned by just about every sitcom since the dawn of television, Disneyfied by both Jim Carrey and Scrooge McDuck, and turned into a one-man show by Patrick Stewart (aka Capt. Picard of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”), it can be a chore to find a gimmick-free stage version.
ACT founder Gregory A. Falls put together a faithful, hour-and-a-half-long adaptation of the early Victorian classic in 1976, and it’s been warming the cockles of the hardest hearts ever since. This year’s incarnation is directed by Allison Narver, who cut her teeth on the production last year. Miserly Ebenezer Scrooge will receive his prescribed visits from the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future with the traditional “Bah, humbug!” and there will be nary a reference to Occupy Seattle nor Scrooge’s one percent status.
The big question for a production that changes only slightly each year is who will be playing Scrooge this time around? Sharing the load, the “dueling Scrooges” of 2011 are nine-time Ebenezer veteran David Pichette and third-timer Jeff Steitzer. Cross-dressing as Tiny Tim for the second year in a row is Maple Valley second-grader Sarah Grace Roberts. The cast is loaded with Seattle theatrical heavies, including Anne Allgood as Mrs. Fezziwig, Ian Bell as Bob Cratchit and Eric Ankrim as Scrooge’s nephew, Fred.
If you go: A Christmas Carol is on stage through Dec. 24 at ACT. $27-$49. They’re not letting in kids under age 5 during this year’s 48-performance run, so plan accordingly. For tickets, visit www.acttheatre.org.
Shrinking kids and anthropomorphic mice, indoor snow and romance with a guy carved from a block of wood. It may be surreal when you stop to think about it, but Nutcracker is the classic Christmas show, bar none. Created collaboratively by choreographer Kent Stowell and children’s book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, Pacific Northwest Ballet’s version of Nutcracker captures a fair amount of the darkness of the ballet’s source text, E.T.A. Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King,” by way of Sendak’s iconic take on disturbing dreams, “Where the Wild Things Are.”
After making its debut in 1983, the production went on to be performed in Vancouver, Portland, and Minneapolis. It really caught on here, and as one of the most kid-friendly of Seattle’s holiday performances, the epic journey to Seattle Center and the excruciating hunt for parking has become an annual Christmas pilgrimage for many families. You’ll be hearing snippets of Tchaikovsky’s unmistakable score piping through department store speakers all month long, so you might as well indulge in the whole thing. As PNB’s big money-maker of the year, the company never fails to pull together a solid production, from the kiddie corps de ballet to the show's namesake himself.
If you go: Nutcracker runs through Dec. 27 for 36 performances at McCaw Hall. $26-$123. For tickets, visit www.pnb.org.
Cool Yule: The Big Band Theory
The more than 300-member Seattle Men’s Chorus touts itself as the largest gay men's chorus in the world. Crooning since 1979, their annual Christmas concert has become known as “Seattle’s other holiday tradition” and is a reliable study in festive fabulousness.
Riffing on TV’s nerd-lauding “The Big Bang Theory,” the Seattle Men’s Chorus is opening its 32nd season with a showcase of brassy Christmas hits, backed by a live swing band. They will be joined in belting out “Let It Snow,” “Walkin’ In A Winter Wonderland,” “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and “Jingle Bells” by big-voiced Broadway blond, Megan Hilty.
More than an object of geek lust, Bellevue native Hilty made her Broadway debut as Glinda in Wicked, racked up the requisite Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle award nominations (indispensable for those who want to be seen as “serious actors”), then hit the TV guest star circuit on “Bones,” “The Closer,” “Desperate Housewives, “CSI,” and “Ugly Betty.”
In keeping with the TV holiday special spirit, the men are promising on stage “appearances” by the “The Big Bang Theory” characters, along with surprises, both naughty and nice.
If you go: Cool Yule: The Big Band Theory runs through Dec. 23 at venues in Tacoma, Seattle and Everett. $27-$77. For tickets, visit www.SeattleMensChorus.org.