Holiday shows are steeped in tradition

Skip Hooper
"A Christmas Carol" runs at Theatre Memphis Nov. 30-Dec. 23, featuring Chuck Hodges (back row, center) as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Barry Fuller (right center with white bed cap) as Ebenezer Scrooge, as they react to party guests of Scrooges nephew, Fred (Kinon Kiplinger, far right), laughing at Scrooge's expense and mocking him because of his stingy ways.

Skip Hooper "A Christmas Carol" runs at Theatre Memphis Nov. 30-Dec. 23, featuring Chuck Hodges (back row, center) as the Ghost of Christmas Present and Barry Fuller (right center with white bed cap) as Ebenezer Scrooge, as they react to party guests of Scrooges nephew, Fred (Kinon Kiplinger, far right), laughing at Scrooge's expense and mocking him because of his stingy ways.

Like warm hearths and dinner tables heaped with food, local theaters are places where families come together in December to hear the twice-told tales, revisit memories and get into the spirit of the holidays. With this year's early Thanksgiving, Christmas may yet seem a long way off. But judging by the wave of holiday shows rolling into theaters this weekend, the "most wonderful time of the year" has already arrived.

Traditions are serious business for local theater and dance companies, and once taken hold, they tend to last.

Ballet Memphis' annual "Nutcracker" ballet, 25 years and counting, runs through Sunday at the Orpheum theater. A cast of more than a hundred people dances the 1816 story of a girl who visits a magical kingdom on a snowy Christmas Eve. The Memphis Symphony Orchestra, under music director Mei-Ann Chen, performs Tchaikovsky's expansive and memorable score.

For the past 35 years, Theatre Memphis has had a lockdown on Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol," and for 12 of those years (including the first in 1978), the beloved local stage actor Barry Fuller, now age 83, has been getting his soul saved five times a week as the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge. A highly successful remount of the show two years ago by director Jason Spitzer keeps the show's old gothic heart beating with renewed vitality.

An updated version of Scrooge's journey is the subject of Ekundayo Bandele's play "If Scrooge Was a Brother," which is becoming an annual event at Hattiloo Theatre. In this musical tale, Eb Scroo has forgone his racial identity to become a wealthy man in a community that now despises him.

The stage adaptation of the hugely popular 1971 children's book "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever" is Germantown Community Theatre's perennial choice of holiday fare, featuring actual kids in the starring roles.

Kids are also in full force in Playhouse on the Square's current production of "Annie." For those who live south of the border, DeSoto Family Theatre is also doing the show. Though not a "Christmas" show per se, it does conclude with a big musical number, "New Deal for Christmas," complete with lots of presents being doled out by Daddy Warbucks.

Across the street at Circuit Playhouse, kids might also appreciate the smaller scale "Twas the Night Before Christmas," a silly story about a mouse who saves Christmas, which can be seen at Saturday and Sunday matinees. In the theater's Memphian room, adults can return at night to see actor David Foster perform his ballyhooed turn as the snarky Crumpet the Elf in David Sedaris' "The Santaland Diaries."

Next weekend, New Ballet Ensemble's "Nut Re-Mix" at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre puts multiculturalism at the forefront of this extravaganza by young dancers "remixing" the "Nutcracker" using traditional dance forms from around the world, including ballet, Flamenco, Hip-hop and authentic African dance.

Nostalgia for Frank Capra's film about a man who gets to see what life were like if he'd never been born will draw folks to Tennessee Shakespeare Company's "It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play," which takes the script and re-imagines it being done by a handful of actors in the Golden Age of radio.

A tradition in the making, "Sister Myotis's Karaoke Smackdown III" at Theatre South, raises money for theater company Voices of the South by encouraging holiday karaoke while a godly church woman (played by actor Steve Swift) weighs in on the quality of the singing.

The hard part isn't finding entertainment to satisfy those holiday cravings — it's deciding which show to watch.

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