Four Local Christmas Plays to Skip This Season

We know you're crazy busy this time of year, and so are local theater companies. With very few revivals of Curtains-approved holiday extravaganzas on the boards in 2011, we ran around and checked out as many of the current crop of offerings as we could. 

Here are four plays running through the weekend and into next week that you can safely skip.

4. Sister's Christmas Catechism: The Mystery of the Magi's Gold
Okay, if you've never seen Patti Hannon in any of Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts' productions of Maripat Donovan's Late Night Catechism series (two more editions of which return next month), this could be as good an intro as any to a Valley institution and a very, very good performer. Hannon's devoted herself to this character for years, and her spontaneity and audience interaction are the best.

But there's no story to speak of here, and the big-time saucy Catholic humor of the earlier entries is not as evident. However, audience members do get dragged into a live Nativity re-enactment (and I will always consider using leftover gimme T-shirts as Biblical headdresses from now on).

3. A Christmas Story at Phoenix Theatre
Usually, theaters try not to run shows with the same title at the same time as each other. At the holidays, though, all bets are off, so if you're fixed on seeing a particular production of A Christmas Carol or A Christmas Story or The Nutcracker, make sure you're getting tickets to the one you want. 

Phoenix Theatre's mounting of Phil Grecian's authorized adaptation of the beloved 1983 film based on Jean Shepherd's memoir is not, for example, the musical version that's recently been Seattle's hot ticket. It is the same script Mesa Encore Theatre is presenting through Friday, December 30, for what that's worth (MET does tend to have a deft hand with comedy). (And those aren't the only two.)

Actually, the major and almost only drawback of PT's production is that script, which is ultra-faithful to its sentimental, lingering source material and maintains a pervasive sedative quality, making it feel much longer than it is. Shepherd's verbose flashback narration, a voice-over counterpoint in the movie, is delivered onstage by an actual dude who scurries all over the stage, unnoticed by the other characters, and never shuts up (played as well as possible, all things considered, by Harold Dixon). It's off-putting, verging on creepy.

But Jim Hunter's set is adorable and flexible, and the cast is top-notch -- especially Dion Johnson as Ralphie's dad, the "Old Man," and the eight children (many of whose roles are double-cast). Director Pasha Yamotahari has everything happening with alacrity, but even at breakneck pace, this seems to be an inherently draggy, though sweetly nostalgic play. It could be a fun outing for a family, but jaded, childless adults (and I know you're out there) might want to give this one a pass.

A Christmas Story continues through Saturday, December 24, at 100 East McDowell Road. 

2. Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some)
Geography does not factor into this review. Though BlackBox Productions is based in Casa Grande, it's about as handy as anywhere else for nightlife if you live in Sun Lakes or parts of Chandler or Queen Creek -- or even Ahwatukee, if you factor in traffic -- and especially if you tend to go back and forth to Tucson, a road trip that happens even more often these next couple of holiday weeks.

I've been wanting to check out this theater for a while. It was founded just a couple of years ago by JJ Freyermuth and Ken Ferguson, and it helps make Casa Grande a more interesting place. Season choices range from the safe and familiar to the more ambitious. They have a little bar and also serve popcorn.

Every Christmas Story Ever Told (and then some) is a fairly popular holiday show that I haven't noticed on Valley stages yet. It's described as Big Bang Theory meets Reduced Shakespeare Company, I guess because there's a lot of geek-love and arguing going on.

The premise is that a theater company mutinies during the opening minutes of a nice traditional production of A Christmas Carol. They're sick of it. They ultimately agree to present a sort of live highlights reel of holiday films and specials that resonate with them more, interspersed with "Christmas Around the World" facts recited from index cards.

You have to admire the energy of this hard-working three-member cast. They do it all in frantic spoofy style, and Act II (in which Torch Theatre's Mack Duncan thinks he finally gets to reverently portray Ebenezer Scrooge but is constantly confronted by characters from It's a Wonderful Life who address him as George Bailey) is a mashup of inspired insanity (and Duncan's Stewart impression is adorable).

The first half is long and scattered, though (again -- sigh -- it's largely a writing thing). It has its moments, including a Nutcracker pas de deux that Duncan performs with four of his fingers on a tiny black stage balanced on castmate Stacey Seaman's head, but these folks would have to be exceptionally good community theater performers to keep all the balls in the air, and they're not exceptionally good.

The show will probably get tighter and quirkier with each subsequent weekend, though (freewheeling stuff like this generally does), and it continues through Saturday, December 31, at 1330 East Florence Boulevard in Casa Grande (just a few minutes off I-10). 

1. Miracle on 34th Street at Arizona Broadway Theatre
With a score by The Music Man's Meredith Willson and production values from one of my favorite places to see musicals, I thought this Miracle would have to be better than this one. Sadly, it's merely different and has, if anything, less momentum.

We were at the dinner theater for five hours straight -- that's not a problem per se, but more than half of that time was taken up by the play. Which, again, is not required to be a problem.

But it is. Returning for Act II was an act of sheer will. Most of the issue, again, is the screwing up of one of the best movies ever without bothering to create a compelling stage play in the process.

And it turns out the late Willson was capable of phoning it in (with which we can all sympathize, I'm sure). Though he scored the films The Great Dictator and The Little Foxes and even wrote the song "Pinecones and Holly Berries," a.k.a. "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas" (in 1951, several years before this show was created), he also wrote "My State, My Kansas," most likely for the 1961 Kansas centennial show, and shoehorned it into the courtroom scene here. Oh, yes, he did.

Unfazed by the pedestrian trippiness of the show's structure (the biggest production number is a dream scene -- I finally concluded -- full of clumsy life-size toys), the company plows right through in good form, with a live mini-orchestra, fine vocal work, and Martha J. Clarke's usual gorgeous and appropriate costumes. Much of the dialogue and lyrics are drowned out, and pretty much all of the rest that aren't lifted straight from the screenplay are mawkish and dated and have been since 1963. I think I have to come right out and urge you not to go.

However, just in case, Miracle on 34th Street continues through Saturday, December 24, at Arizona Broadway Theatre, 7701 West Paradise Lane in Peoria. 

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Julie has written for the Night & Day events calendar section since 2005. As a student at Arizona State, she received the Glendon and Kathryn Swarthout Creative Writing Award and the Theatre Medallion of Merit.
Contact: Julie Peterson