Holiday shows re-take the stage in Seattle after pandemic pause

After canceling performances last year, Northwest theater makers are back with shows from old-fashioned to offbeat.

three actors dressed as festive holiday reindeer

Seattle’s popular holiday shows return to the live stage this year, including the irreverent and raucous ‘Jingle All the Gay,’ presented by local drag duo Kitten N’ Lou. (Jules Doyle)

How do you like your holiday shows? Comfy and cozy as a fleece throw blanket? Zany, R-rated, surreal or satirical? Or perhaps you’d prefer something that doesn’t mention Christmas, Hanukkah or Kwanzaa at all, just a pleasing diversion to take you through the end of a complicated year.

As we edge gingerly out of hibernation to attend live events (with an anxious eye on omicron), Seattle is reviving one of its longest, most popular holiday traditions: a many-flavored smorgasbord of theater, a something-for-everyone potluck of plays, musicals, drag and comedy shows performed in person.

One of many reasons the past year was so tough on performing arts organizations is that the holiday cash cows usually counted on to help fund year-round operations weren’t viable, due to pandemic precautions and closures. 

Case in point: Pacific Northwest Ballet communications director Gary Tucker says ticket sales for the holiday run of The Nutcracker usually generate 20% to 25% of the company’s entire annual budget. “What we make on Nutcracker makes it possible for the company to stage other, riskier work throughout the season,” Tucker explains.

Now, with COVID-19 protocols in place (requiring patrons to wear masks and show proof of vaccination), organizations like PNB are seizing the opportunity to get back to where they once belonged in December: presenting shows with broad appeal or wacky escapism — the assumption being that at this time of year, we could all use a serving of theatrical comfort food and sweet treats.

So here is an unofficial “gift guide” to some of the productions on the boards, arranged according to whatever you might be craving.

Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer Christian Poppe in the new role of the Cricket (with PNB School students Celena Fornell and Emerson Boll, and company dancers) in ‘The Nutcracker.’ (Angela Sterling)

Traditional and G-rated

Two perennial holiday favorites are back, one with a twist, one with an update. PNB’s The Nutcracker returns to McCaw Hall (in person through Dec. 28; streaming Dec. 20-28) with a live orchestra playing the familiar Tchaikovsky score and the city’s first-class ballet company executing the classic George Balanchine choreography. But PNB’s Tucker notes that Nutcracker isn’t just about sleigh bells and sugar plums — it tends to have an artistic ripple effect.

“Kids who come to the show see other kids on stage and decide that they want to take dance classes,” he says. “Whether those classes are at their neighborhood dance studio or at PNB School, it’s a win for the art form.”

If you go this year, watch for a change in choreography and costume: PNB worked with the George Balanchine Trust to replace the original “Chinese divertissement” segment, which relied on racial stereotyping, with a new (and very cute) Green Tea Cricket dance.

From left to right: R. Hamilton Wright (Scrooge/Marley), Amy Thone (Scrooge/Marley) and Nathaniel Tenenbaum (Fezziwig/Narrator) in A Christmas Carol at ACT Theatre. (Rosemary Daiross)

Meanwhile, A Christmas Carol, the evergreen Charles Dickens tale of greed and redemption that launched countless stage adaptations, is on view at ACT Theatre (through Dec. 26), for the 46th time since ACT first mounted it in 1976. (Last year ACT presented an online-only version.) 

This rendition boasts a new wrinkle: Scrooge and Marley will be played, on alternate nights, by male and female actors: Seattle’s R. Hamilton Wright and Amy Thone. Since Thone has excelled locally as Richard Nixon and Shylock in past productions, she seems like the right woman for the job.

Among the many variations on Dickens’ story of ghosts past and present is the Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life, which Theater Anonymous has adapted into It’s a Wonderful Livestream (streamed virtually from the Cornish Playhouse, Dec. 11). For this version, some 30 local actors study only their own part — with no idea who is cast in the other roles — and make a surprise entrance on stage when it’s time to utter their first line. Hilarity ensues.

Jason Marr channels Bruce Willis in ‘A Very Die Hard Christmas’ at Seattle Public Theater. (Truman Buffett)

Comedic Christmas takes 

A Very Die Hard Christmas returns to Green Lake’s Seattle Public Theater (through Dec. 26), where it has regularly sold out the house during previous runs. Created and first performed three years ago by local stage troupe The Habit, this is a musical sendup of the Bruce Willis action flick Die Hard, which takes place, in case you forgot, over Christmas. 

“I think people are extremely thirsty for a satirical Christmas romp,” says the musical’s director and co-creator, Mark Siano. “The idea of being in a live setting with a boisterous audience at a raucous comedy is something we’ve all been craving.”

And if action-flick spoofs with ’80s jokes aren’t your bag, maybe film noir satire is. Seattle Public Theater is also reviving Christmastown (through Dec. 24), a nifty little mock-noir caper by Seattle playwright Wayne Rawley about a gumshoe, a sexy elf and Santa (aka Big Red).

Michael Wu plays a hardboiled detective in the noir-spoof ‘Christmastown’ at Seattle Public Theater. (David Hogan)

For those looking for something even further afield from traditional fare, consider a rendezvous with the cheerfully apocalyptic Sugar Plum Gary (through Dec. 24), an interactive communion with Seattle comedian Emmett Montgomery (known for his “Weird & Awesome” shows).

Montgomery plays Gary, a bearded schlub in pajamas described as “a gentle-hearted ‘Santanist’ who has been possessed by the Holiday Spirit since Santa came to visit and Gary was the only survivor.” Using improvised dialogue with the audience at the intimate 18th & Union theater, Gary answers all questions put to him about Christmas. 

For more offbeat, interactive merriment, head to Jet City Improv’s show at West of Lenin: Uncle Mike Ruins Christmas (through Dec. 18), in which audience suggestions spark seasonal scenarios ruined by the titular boorish relative.

DeLa and Jinkx return to the Neptune Theater with new songs, scandalous comedy and holiday-themed shenanigans. (STG Presents)

Drag and burlesque bon-bons

Drag-comedy combos are a seasonal Seattle favorite, and upholding the treasured tradition is the irrepressible, incomparable Dina Martina (at the Moore Theatre, Dec. 10-11), she of smeared makeup, bizarre gifts for the audience, earnestly off-kilter chanteuse-ing and surprising pops of pathos.

Other beloved local performers are bringing back the bawdy, too. Aimed at an adult crowd, these acts include The Return of the Jinkx & DeLa Holiday Show, Live! at the Neptune Theatre (Dec. 21-24 and Dec. 26). Starring camp-comedy all-stars and RuPaul’s Drag Race alumnae BenDeLaCreme and Jinkx Monsoon — both with strong Seattle ties — the evening promises merriment, swanky music and amusement. Editor's note: this show has been canceled amid the rise in COVID cases.

Another esteemed local drag duo, Kitten N’ Lou, present the annual Jingle All the Gay! (at the Oddfellows Building, through Dec. 18), billed as, “a deliciously queer, joyful and triumphant celebration of song, dance, burlesque and holiday hilarity.” The revue-style show has been running in various incarnations for 13 years in Seattle and has become many folks’ defining holiday tradition, “especially for people who have often felt like an outsider during the holidays,” the duo reports.

Acts on the boisterous bill this year include local favorites like Cherdonna Shinatra, ilvs strauss and Markeith Wiley, plus imports Jeez Loueez (from New Orleans), Toto Bonito (Los Angeles) and Lola Van Ella (San Francisco).

For even more sparkly, saucy, scantily clad extravaganzas, consider the long-running Land of the Sweets: The Burlesque Nutcracker at the Triple Door nightclub (Dec. 8-29). Or the burlesque dinner theater show Wonderland (through Jan. 9), a “Parisian-inspired” production at the reopened Can Can Cabaret in Pike Place Market, which serves up food, drinks and beaucoup ooh-la-la.

Varinique Davis (left) and Nina Williams-Teramachi in Seattle Rep’s Public Works production of ‘The Winter’s Tale.’ (Bronwen Houck)

Seasonal spirit, minus the holiday trappings 

We might not get snow, but we know we’ll have The Winter’s Tale at Seattle Rep (a hybrid presentation Dec. 16-19). This musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s story of jealousy and reconciliation was performed live and recorded on the Seattle Rep stage as part of the community-based Public Works program. Now audiences are invited to view the filmed performance, including behind-the-scenes footage, either in person at Cornish Playhouse in Seattle Center or virtually at home. 

Director Desdemona Chiang says while it might not be a holiday classic, The Winter’s Tale is timely. “The spirit of forgiving, of community, joy and abundance, of coming together as family feels very appropriate,” she notes, “especially as folks are able to reconnect more intimately with loved ones again.”

And one more apt offering: Taproot Theatre is finally mounting the stage adaptation of Babette’s Feast (in person and streaming through Dec. 30) it had planned to present back in March 2020 — aka “the beforetimes.” Says Taproot producing director Karen Lund, “We promised folks that when we returned, we would return with Babette’s Feast no matter the time of year.”

But Lund believes the shift in timing of the production is serendipitous. The play Babette’s Feast, by Rose Courtney, is based on the Oscar-winning 1987 film (adapted from a story by Isaak Dinesen) about a French refugee from the Franco-Prussian War who is taken in as a servant in a strictly religious Danish village. In gratitude, the servant Babette uses a sudden windfall of money to whip up a sumptuous seven-course dinner for the community.

“The play’s themes work so well with both the joy of the holiday season and the reopening of the theater,” Lund says. “They speak to our collective need for community, celebration, art and, of course, feasting!”

Matthew Posner (standing), Jenny Cross and Nolan Palmer dig into Babette’s Feast at Taproot Theatre. (Erik Stuhaug)

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About the Authors & Contributors

Misha Berson

Misha Berson

Misha Berson was the chief theatre critic for The Seattle Times for 25 years, now working as a freelance writer and teacher.