November 28, 2004
Here’s a holiday story of a different Dickensian stripe:
The Valley’s theater producers wake up from a distressing series of ghostly nightmares, rub their eyes, scramble out of bed and dash to the bedroom window to shout, "It’s Christmas, and behold! No Rockettes! Hollo! Whoop! No Rockettes!"
And just like that, the producers knew it would be a fine Christmastime indeed, with audiences aplenty.
One could excuse theater companies from acting giddy as they head into the holidays this season — riding high on the fact that they won’t be competing for holiday entertainment dollars against the high-kicking juggernaut that is the touring "Radio City Christmas Spectacular."
The Rockettes show is skipping ASU’s Gammage Auditorium next month after two years of boffo sales receipts.
"That is a piece of news, absolutely, which is a good thing," says Matthew Wiener, producing artistic director of Actors Theatre.
For more than a decade, his company has staged a musical comedy production of Charles Dickens’ "A Christmas Carol" for audiences at the Herberger Theater Center, and it’s one of 18 theatrical shows being staged across the Valley looking to rake in yuletide cash while getting people into the holiday spirit with plays, musicals, revues and — in greater number this year — alternative comedies.
There are two "A Christmas Carols": Actors Theatre’s song-infused production (co-written by Wiener and Tribune writer Michael Grady) and a nonmusical one at the Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert. There are "Christmas Carol"-inspired works, too — from the monologue "One Christmas Carol" at ASU West to Theatre Eclectic’s "A Dickens of a Feast," a musical that focuses on Scrooge’s early years.
Meanwhile, musical revue galas like the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre’s "Sounds of Christmas" and the Chandler Center for the Arts’ massive "Spirit of Christmas" gala eschew storylines for melody lines and unabashed, concentrated holiday glee.
"People want to be put into the holiday spirit and get a chance to kick back and share a moment with their families," Fountain Hills Youth Theatre artistic director Ross Collins says. "They want to come in and say, ‘Entertain me. I’ve had enough of entertaining everyone else.’ "
But theater companies aren’t just giving the gift of temporary distraction from houseguests and crowded malls and the more hectic side of ho-ho-ho. They realize December is when people’s spending muscles are at their most active, and the theater companies want a piece of that Christmastime cha-ching.
Getting holiday audiences is easy, the companies say, allowing them to back off their advertising and promotional efforts and ride December’s gravy train into the black.
Most theater companies say they expected their holiday shows to bolster their seasons’ bottom lines — Will Prather at the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre says his company’s large Mesa playhouse will do 25 percent of its annual sales, or about $1 million, in November and December, largely during the run of its "Sounds of Christmas" musical revue — while others, like Tempe’s Childsplay, which enters into its 17th year performing "The Velveteen Rabbit" on Saturday at Scottsdale Center for the Arts, see their holiday shows as a way to draw in new audiences to other seasonal fare.
Meanwhile, groups like Artists’ Theatre Project and Alternative Theatre Company want to subvert the cheerier side of Christmas with alternative shows, hoping to grab more jaded theatergoers for whom another holiday of the same-old same-old just won’t do. Artists’ Theatre Project is staging best-selling comic writer David Sedaris’ "The Santaland Diaries" along with other Sedaris stories at Scottsdale’s TinselTown Tavern, while Alternative Theatre Company’s "A Queer Carol" casts Ebenezer Scrooge as an interior decorator whose life partner, Jake Marley, has died of AIDS but returns to teach Scrooge a lesson in compassion so that he will grant medical coverage for employee Bob Cratchit and his ailing boyfriend, Tiny Tim.
"Dickens’ message," says "A Queer Carol" director Joe Marshall, "is still there — love, charity, hope. But it has a little gay twist to it."
(As always, Phoenix’s Arizona Jewish Theatre is offering an alternative at Christmastime: This time it’s a repertory of the comedies "Beau Jest" and "Jest a Second" by James Sherman. A fund-raising event on Christmas Day will offer a production of "Beau Jest," a silent auction and — in keeping with the longtime joke — kosher Chinese hors d’oeuvres.)
It may be a Rockettes-free winter wonderland for the Valley’s theater companies this December, but ASU Public Events executive director Colleen Jennings-Roggensack says she’ll likely bring the "Radio City Christmas Spectacular" back soon. And even Actors Theatre’s Wiener says he’s not so sure the Valley’s theaters won’t feel some Christmas impact from Gammage.
Tickets for Gammage’s January show of "The Lion King" are still on sale — and, Jennings-Roggensack is quick to add, they make great gifts.
"Maybe ‘The Lion King’ in January," Wiener says, "will be as good as the Rockettes in December."
So far, Valley theater companies are reporting healthy presale figures for their shows. But their fingers are crossed.
Says Childsplay’s Steve Martin, "We don’t start jumping up and down until the week after opening. Then we’ll know how we’re doing."
Musicals and revues
"A Broadway Christmas"
Copperstate Dinner Theater
Now playing, through Dec. 31 at Phoenix Greyhound Park, Phoenix
Director/actor Peter Hill culls well-known and obscure yuletide songs for a
living room revue of Broadway favorites. "Turkey Lurkey Time," anyone?
$32.95, includes meal.
"A Christmas Carol"
Dec. 11-24 at the Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix
Musical version plays up the sillier side of Dickens' tale in a show that's
heavy on special effects, lighting and laughs. $39.50-$43.50
"A Dickens of a Feast"
Opens Saturday, through Dec. 19 at the Kelton Performing Arts Center,
Original interactive musical spends time with a young Ebenezer Scrooge and a
cast of 40 at the holiday party of Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig. Call for ticket
A-MUZ Holiday Spectacular
Dec. 9 at Monti's La Casa Vieja, Tempe
Musical revue of songs from '30s and '40s and Christmas favorites is set in
a radio station with one depressed deejay, Mick, who needs cheering during
the holidays. $35, includes meal.
"A Winnie-the-Pooh Christmas Tail"
Valley Youth Theatre
Opens Friday, through Dec. 23 at Valley Youth Theatre, Phoenix
Adorable holiday-themed musical puts VYT children in animal costumes for
silly, family-friendly musical based on popular characters. $15.
"Babes in Toyland"
Greasepaint Scottsdale Youtheatre
Opens Friday, through Dec. 19 at Stagebrush Theatre, Scottsdale
Classic holiday adventure operetta in Toyland gets a youth theater staging.
$15, $12 for children and students.
"The Elves and the Shoemaker"
Great Arizona Puppet Theater
Opens Wednesday, through Dec. 24 at Great Arizona Puppet Theater, Phoenix
An overworked shoemaker gets a holiday gift in the form of helper elves in
this fairy tale classic. $8, $6 for children.
iTheatre's Christmas Cabaret
Dec. 10-19 at Herberger Theater Center, Phoenix
Cabaret directed by Jeff Kennedy brings several of the Valley's top talents
to the stage to celebrate the season with old and new holiday songs. $15.
"Pau$e for the Clau$e"
Fountain Hills Youth Theater
Opens Friday, through Dec. 19 at Fountain Hills Community Theater
Ross Collins directs his own futuristic comedy tale in which Christmas has
been overtaken by consumerism and holiday advertising starts in July. $10,
$8 for children.
"The Santaland Diaries"/"Season's Greetings"
Artists' Theatre Project
Opens Friday, through Dec. 12 at TinselTown Tavern, Scottsdale
Bestselling comedy writer David Sedaris' beloved holiday stories - including
"Santaland Diaries," made popular on National Public Radio - get a localized
staging with upstart theater group. Call for ticket price.
"Sounds of Christmas"
Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre
Now playing, through Dec. 25 at Broadway Palm, Mesa
Song-and-dance-packed revue shimmies across time for all-encompassing, funny
collection of scenes and tunes. $39-$50, most tickets include buffet.
"Spirit of Christmas"
Christian Dance Company
Dec. 11-18 at Chandler Center for the Arts
Tempe Dance Academy brings 100 dancers, singers and guest performers for
lavish revue of song and dance, plus classic Parade of the Wooden Soldiers.
"A Queer Carol"
Alternative Theatre Company
Opens Thursday, through Dec. 19 at The Space Theatre, Phoenix
Scrooge is an interior designer, Jacob Marley has died of AIDS and Bob
Cratchit needs medical insurance for his lover, Tiny Tim, in Joe Godfrey's
comic adaptation of "A Christmas Carol." $15.
"A Christmas Carol"
Hale Centre Theatre
Opens Thursday, through Dec. 23 at Hale Centre Theatre, Gilbert
Scrooge learns his lesson in a traditional, critically applauded (called
"Best Christmas Production " last year by the Tribune) community production
in the round. $17-$21.
"Beau Jest"/"Jest a Second"
Arizona Jewish Theatre Company
Opens Dec. 18, through Jan. 9 at Playhouse on the Park, Phoenix
Repertory of comedies by James Sherman offers kosher alternative for
Christmas productions. Call for ticket prices.
Creative Youth Theatre
Opens Thursday, through Dec. 18 at North Pointe Preparatory, Phoenix
New theater company presents original play about a modern family that's a
little bit "Grinch"-y and a little bit "The Simpsons." $10.
"One Christmas Carol"
Dec. 10-12 at ASU West's Second Stage West, Phoenix
Douglas H. Baker handles every character in Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" in
riveting solo performance. $15, $10 for seniors, $6 for students.
"The Quiltmaker's Gift"
Dec. 10-19 at Phoenix Theatre
Family musical based on best-selling book finds a greedy king who is
transformed by a wise quiltmaker. $15-$17.
"The Velveteen Rabbit"
Opens Sat., through Dec. 19 at Scottsdale Center for the Arts
Childsplay's beloved production of a young boy and his stuffed rabbit toy
comes to life with puppets and consistently reliable performances. $20, $16
for students and seniors.