The Return of Nativity

The best news about the Christmas pageants playing professional stages this holiday season is that not one of them features a fat guy in a red suit. The bad news is that they're all the same shows as last year, and the year before that.

What's more, the companies producing these shows are making the same promises we've heard before. The folks at Childsplay swear this is the last time they'll put on the bunny suit for their annual presentation of The Velveteen Rabbit. And Actors Theatre of Phoenix has been sending out press releases for months announcing an all-new, revamped production of A Christmas Carol, the company's seasonal stalwart of the past few years.

ATP, at least, has proof: A full week of previews revealed a shiny, brighter Christmas Carol than the company has staged before. The only thing that this production has in common with the troupe's previous holiday programmer is its name.

"We'd reached the point where we couldn't adapt the existing script any further without showing disrespect to the writers," says ATP's artistic director Matthew Wiener. "So we created our own." The new script, co-authored by Wiener and local playwright Michael Grady, is a more traditional adaptation of the Dickens novella.

"We set out to create a holiday show as opposed to a socioeconomic expose on 19th-century England," Wiener says. "It's a different take on the story, but it's recognizable--it's not Scrooge on Mars." There's more music--not to mention more yuks--in this retelling of Tiny Tim's best Christmas ever. Composer Alan Ruch has written all new tunes for the piece, and new sets and costumes dress up a cast list that reads like a who's who of local theater: Robyn Ferracane, Linda DeArmond, Heidi Ewart, Matthew MacDougall, David Vining, Sally Jo Bannow, Michelle Gardner, and Ben Tyler all appear in support of Gerald Burgess, who returns as Ebenezer Scrooge for the seventh straight year.

Local celebrities of a different stripe grace the stage in Black Theatre Troupe's production of Langston Hughes' The Black Nativity. The show, first presented last season at the company's newly refurbished downtown playhouse, now features a couple of radio jocks--Art Mobley and Wade Hampton of Magic 107 FM--who take turns in the role of the narrator. More notable changes include new choreography that combines authentic African-style dancing with modern jazz and ballet, and a full chorus courtesy of ASU's fledgling gospel choir.

"There's something for everyone in this show," according to the company's artistic director David Hemphill, who may well be addressing conservatives dreaming of a white Christmas: Hughes' controversial second-act monologue about the Christ child's birth in Africa has been trimmed from the second act. "We wanted to make room for more music," Hemphill says.

Ho ho ho.

--Robrt L. Pela

Actors Theatre of Phoenix's A Christmas Carol continues through Wednesday, December 23, at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe (252-8497). Black Theatre Troupe's The Black Nativity continues through Sunday, December 20, at the Helen K. Mason Center for the Performing Arts, 333 East Portland (258-8128).