As we tiptoe into the economically uncertain yuletide season, there will be fewer than normal theatrical enticements drawing upon local playgoers' budgets which are bound to be a lot more than customarily penny-pinched.
Nevertheless, the response to this dollar crunch from most area producers is to rely on the same old reliable programming strategy that has consistently solved their year-end box-office woes in the past. With few exceptions, this season's sparser holiday attractions will be returnees as traditional as Aunt Bessie's Christmas fruitcakes. Contrary, though, to the usual gustatory rejection they arouse, these are fruitcakes that young and old alike have always gobbled up as if they were triple-dip banana splits.
To further whet the appetite for these staple treats, there will be a bit of tweaking of some of their recipes. For the 20th annual appearance of A Christmas Carol (Nov. 28-Dec. 23), Great Lakes Theater Festival has brought back the show's adapter, original director and former GLTF head, Gerald Freedman, to co-direct with Victoria Bussert. Adding to the reinvigoration, there is, for the first time in some years, a new Scrooge. Regular company member Aled Davies will be only the fourth performer in the production's two decades to take on the storied role of the miser-turned-philanthropist.
A touch of freshness is likewise being applied to the Cleveland Play House's fourth go-round with A Christmas Story (Nov. 28-Dec. 21), the stage adaptation of the cult 1983 film so beloved by Clevelanders. While the nigh-perfect Elizabeth Townsend and Charles Kartali return as Mom and the Old Man, Wilbur Edwin Henry will debut as the grownup Ralphie, who narrates the agonies he suffered as a boy in his epic quest for a Red Ryder BB gun. His child alter ego is also to be newly embodied by Kolin Morgenstern, who, in the fashion typical of the show's past young Ralphies, has graduated from previously playing one of the other kids. Years ago, CPH boss Michael Bloom said he preferred not to keep bringing back Story. All that need be said about the power of popularity is that its fifth mounting is already firmly set for Xmas 2009.
What's fresh about PlayhouseSquare's The Radio City Christmas Spectacular (Dec. 4-28) is not that it isn't a trusty touring veteran extravaganza, but that it hasn't visited hereabouts since 2002. This dazzler of a family-friendly revue is exhilaratingly dominated by 20 members of the legendary high-kicking Radio City Music Hall Rockettes, a troupe fabled for over 75 years for its legs - in the delightful double sense of both limbs and durability.
Apparently alone among the most venerable of holiday repeaters, Karamu will do no fiddling with its time-burnished Black Nativity (Dec. 5-28), the Langston Hughes perennial that blends a choreographic depiction of Joseph and Mary's journey to Bethlehem to the accompaniment of spirituals and traditional music, with a rousing simulation of a modern-day gospel church service.
Bowing as well to the irresistible charms of a box-office winner, even Cleveland Public Theatre, the self-proclaimed number-one champion of cutting-edge repertory, will bring back for the fourth straight year The Santaland Diaries (Nov. 28-Dec. 20). David Sedaris' amusing one-man account of his misadventures as a Macy's part-time elf is a resolutely commercial show that by now must have played every community theater and high school in the country twice over. CPT, however, will simultaneously work to keep its progressive pedigree with a pair of non-yule premieres: Boom (Nov. 28-Dec. 20), which involves "sex to change the course of the world" (no, not the Adam-and-Eve original hook-up), and Crumble (Dec. 4-20), about a teenage girl who just wants a bombmaking kit for Christmas.
Only partially eschewing a proven commodity, Beck Center has decided to forego another reprise of its golden goose of the last several holiday seasons, Disney's Beauty and the Beast, for an even more tried-and-true audience favorite: James M. Barrie's Peter Pan - in this case, it's the 1955 musical version that memorably starred Mary Martin (Dec.5-Jan. 4). As with Beauty, Fred Sternfeld will direct and once again rely heavily on the nonpareil skills of choreographer and musical stager Mart’n Céspedes. Following his habitual bent, Sternfeld will also attempt to ratchet up the reality quotient of this classic fantasy by casting, not a female as Peter as is traditionally done, but a young male. Or, as a naughty associate termed it, "A Peter with a peter." Though the notion is hardly new, its daring will probably matter minimally to the kiddies cheering the hero's aviating dexterity and applauding to save Tinker Bell.
Soloing with a stab at seasonal novelty, Hudson's Actors' Summit will present the unfamiliar Sanders Family Christmas (Dec. 5-21), described as "a country gospel musical" set in a North Carolina church on Christmas Eve, 1941 in the immediate wake of the Pearl Harbor bombing.
While weighing on the scale of economic importance nowhere near the impact of what happens to the Big Three automakers, the holidays are historically major fundraisers for theaters. A shortfall in the next few weeks might just be a chilling signal of even tougher than usual times ahead for the arts community.