Considering the abundance of seasonal shows occupying suburban and Chicago stages this time of year, it's difficult to imagine a time when local theaters spent the holidays hibernating.
That changed 35 years ago when Chicago's Goodman Theatre debuted "A Christmas Carol," which remains among the company's grandest, most ambitious productions.
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"It was a risky undertaking," said artistic associate Steve Scott, director of this year's 35th anniversary production.
At the time, the Charles Dickens classic wasn't the regional mainstay it is today. Plus, the original production had a cast of 25 (this year's numbers 28) and lots of technical effects.
Audiences immediately embraced the show, and its success prompted other theater companies to follow suit.
Goodman's commitment to "A Christmas Carol," as well as the enduring story, have made it an annual tradition for many.
"We take it very, very seriously. We start planning the next production the week after the current production closes," said Scott, adding "we spend a lot of time ensuring it is entertaining, thought-provoking and moving."
Goodman also broke ground in 1984 when it began nontraditional or colorblind casting in "A Christmas Carol."
If Goodman's "Carol" has a legacy, it's that holiday shows are a wonderful gift to audiences when theater companies believe in the project, said Scott, citing Commedia Beauregard as an example. That company, he said, is every bit as passionate about staging "A Klingon Christmas Carol" as Goodman is about the traditional "Carol."
"It's the perfect holiday story," he said.
Charlie Beck, executive director of the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, agrees -- and credits Goodman with setting the standard.
"In spite of the fact that 'A Christmas Carol' is so well-known and so widely available, there is something about the story that is so appealing ... that captures the essence of this time of year," Beck said.
Metropolis introduced its version of "A Christmas Carol" 10 years ago as a way of establishing a holiday theater tradition in the suburbs.
"It didn't catch on right away, but we had enough of a following to justify it and, over time, it has built an audience," he said. To that end, people who once attended with their kids are returning with their grandchildren to see the play-with-music.
"It tells a universal story that 'tis better to give than to receive, and when you live within your own selfishness, you never find happiness," said Beck. "We're delighted to offer it."
And the success of "A Christmas Carol" inspired Metropolis to expand its holiday programming to include music, comedy, cabaret and, new this year, "Christmas Bingo: It's a Ho-Ho Holy Night" from the creative team behind "Late Night Catechism."
"The festive mood that seems to descend this time of year really lends itself to people getting out and celebrating," said Beck. "And what better place than a theater?"
Indeed. So here is a look at offerings in the city and suburbs sure to get you in the holiday spirit.
"A Christmas Carol"
By far, the most frequently performed holiday show is "A Christmas Carol," or some version of the tale about the transformation of miserly Ebenezer Scrooge into a man of good will, with the granddaddy of them all being Goodman Theatre's version. The ever-watchable Larry Yando plays Scrooge for the fifth time in director Steve Scott's production, running through Dec. 29 at 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org.
Resident playwright Scott Woldman centers Metropolis Performing Arts Centre's 10th annual production on the Cratchit family, whose patriarch (David J. Nodolski of Arlington Heights) serves as the narrator for this play with music, running through Dec. 24 at 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights. (847) 577-2121 or metropolisarts.com.
Theatergoers can dine with Santa Claus before or after select performances of Drury Lane Theatre's production, which runs through Dec. 22 at 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace. (630) 530-0111 or drurylaneoakbrook.com.
Steel Beam Theatre presents "Scrooge the Musical," adapted from the 1970 film by composer/lyricist Leslie Bricusse and directed by Kevin Wiczer of Wheeling. Performances run through Dec. 23 at 111 W. Main St., St. Charles. (630) 587-8521 or steelbeamtheatre.com.
Evanston's Piccolo Theatre presents its family-friendly "Bah, Humbug!" inspired by Dickens' tale and performed panto-style with songs, dance and magic, through Dec. 22 at the Evanston Arts Depot, 600 Main St., Evanston. (847) 424-0089 or piccolotheatre.com.
Putting a science-fiction spin on the story is Commedia Beauregard, whose popular "A Klingon Christmas Carol" is performed in Klingon with English supertitles. Kevin Alves returns as the warrior Scrooge, who must restore his honor and save Tiny Tim. Performances run through Dec. 30 at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago. (800) 838-3006 or cbtheatre.org.
Three actors on a nearly empty stage deliver Dream Theatre Company's hourlong "A Christmas Carol -- Abridged," running Dec. 15 through Jan. 6 at 556 W. 18th St., Chicago. (773) 552-8616 or dreamtheatrecompany.com.
A Capra classic
Almost as popular as Dickens' tale are radio-play adaptations of Frank Capra's beloved film "It's A Wonderful Life," which theater companies typically stage as a 1940s broadcast.
Among them is American Blues Theater's "It's A Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph," which marks its 100th performance of the show at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 9. Marty Higginbotham, who directed ABT's first production 10 years ago, returns to helm the show, which tells the story of everyman George Bailey. Milk and cookies, a meet and greet with the cast and crew and a singalong follow performances, which continue through Dec. 30 at the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. (773) 871-3000 or americanbluestheater.com.
Improv Playhouse executive director David Stuart directs and stars in his company's fourth annual production of "It's a Wonderful Life," which runs weekends Dec. 7-9 and Dec. 14-16 at 735 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville. (847) 968-4529 or improvplayhouse.com.
Philip Grecian adapted Williams Street Repertory's production of "It's A Wonderful Life: A Radio Play," which proposes to re-create the backstage drama surrounding a live radio broadcast. The show runs through Dec. 15 at the Raue Center, 26 N. Williams St., Crystal Lake. (815) 356-9212 or rauecenter.org.
Mike Nussbaum plays Clarence opposite Cliff Chamberlain's George Bailey in American Theater Company's "It's a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play," which concludes with milk and cookies for the audience. Performances continue through Dec. 30 at 1909 W. Byron St., Chicago. (773) 409-4125 or atcweb.org.
Musicals and more
"Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical" marks this year's Broadway in Chicago entry into the holiday theater market. Max the Dog narrates this tale, written by Albert Hague and Theodor Seuss Geisel, about a schemer who tries to steal Christmas from the innocent Whos. The show runs from Dec. 5-16 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago. (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com.
The O. Henry stories "The Gift of the Magi" and "The Cop and the Anthem" inspired Porchlight Music Theatre's "The Gifts of the Magi," featuring music and lyrics by Randy Courts and book and lyrics by Mark St. Germain. The musical centers on penniless lovers who sacrifice their dearest treasures for each other and about a cheerful bum named Soapy Smith (First Folio Theatre's Kevin McKillip) who tries to get arrested so he can spend the holiday someplace warm. Performances continue through Dec. 23 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. (773) 777-9884 or porchlightmusictheatre.org.
Provision Theater Company remounts its original musical "The Christmas Miracle of Jonathan Toomey," adapted by director Timothy Gregory and Michael Mahler from the children's book by Susan Wojciechowski. It's about a widowed mother who asks a cranky artisan to carve a nativity set to replace the one her late husband made for their son. James Rank and Susan Moniz star in the show, which runs through Dec. 23 at 1001 W. Roosevelt Road, Chicago. (312) 455-0066 or provisiontheater.org.
Sailing into the Mercury Theater yet again is the John Reeger-Julie Shannon musical "The Christmas Schooner," about the sinking 100 years ago of the Rouse Simons, the ship that ferried Christmas trees from Michigan to Chicago's needy German immigrants. Performances continue through Dec. 30 at 3745 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. (773) 325-1700 or mercurytheaterchicago.com.
"The Radio City Christmas Spectacular" -- featuring the world famous Rockettes -- returns to Rosemont for the first time in four years with a revamped show featuring music, dance and perennial favorites like "The Living Nativity" and the parade of wooden soldiers. It runs Dec. 14-30 at 5400 N. River Road, Rosemont. (800) 745-3000 or akootheatre.com.
This year marks The House Theatre of Chicago's fourth annual production of its updated version of "The Nutcracker" about a brave girl who fights the Rat King to save her family. Jeff Award-winning choreographer Tommy Rapley directs the show, which runs through Dec. 30 at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St., Chicago. (773) 769-3832 or thehousetheatre.com.
Court Theatre re-imagines "The Dead," the musical by Richard Nelson (book and lyrics) and Shaun Davey (music and lyrics) inspired by a James Joyce short story about family members gathering for the Feast of the Epiphany in turn-of-the-20th-century Dublin. Performances run through Sunday, Dec. 9, at 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago. (773) 753-4472 or courttheatre.org.
Among the musical revues revised with a seasonal spin is Fox Valley Repertory's "The Winter Wonderettes." The sequel to "The Marvelous Wonderettes" finds the doo-wop quartet filling in for a missing Santa at a holiday party. It runs through Dec. 30 at Pheasant Run Resort, 4051 E. Main St., St. Charles. (630) 584-6342 or foxvalleyrep.org.
Theo Ubique's matinee-only holiday cabaret, "Joy to the World," runs through Dec. 23 at 6970 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago. (773) 347-1109 or theo-u.org.
Holiday humor for all ages
Street Tempo Theatre delivers the ecumenical "It's A Wonderful Santa Land Miracle Nut Cracking Christmas Story ... Jews Welcome" combining various holiday traditions in one family-friendly show. It runs through Dec. 30 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. (773) 327-5252 or stage773.com.
A 6-foot kitty teaches a pair of siblings about the meaning of Hanukkah in "Hannukatz The Musical," running Nov. 30 to Dec. 30 at National Pastime Theater, 941 W. Lawrence Ave., Chicago. (773) 327-7077 or np2.com.
Charles Dickens' holiday story has become so successful that even now, more than 140 years after his death, he's still called upon to recite it. That premise underscores Blake Montgomery's original show "Charles Dickens Begrudgingly Performs 'A Christmas Carol.' Again." The one-man show is suitable for ages 12 and older. It continues through Dec. 24 at The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter St., Chicago. (312) 491-1369 or www.buildingstage.com.
Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle," about a gem stolen from a countess, inspired Raven Theatre artistic director Michael Menendian and John Weagly's adaptation, "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Goose," which runs Dec. 15-30 at 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago. (773) 338-2177 or raventheatre.com.
The Annoyance Theatre's annual Christmas pageant is comprised of stage adaptations of two well-loved TV specials: "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." The double bill runs Nov. 30 through Dec. 28 at 4830 N. Broadway, Chicago. (773) 561-4665 or theannoyance.com.
Elgin's Vex Theatre Company mounts its third original holiday satire, "Twist-a-Carol III: All About Eves." Inspired by the classic film, the show pairs three short plays with live music to answer the question: Will Christmas Eve be usurped by New Year's Eve? The show runs Dec. 7-9 at the Elgin Art Showcase, 164 Division St., Elgin. (847) 991-8081 or vextheatre.org.
Second City brings its "Dysfunctional Holiday Revue" to Fox Valley Repertory from Dec. 7-21 at 4051 E. Main St., St. Charles. The holiday sendup skewers everything from classic films to gift exchanges. (630) 584-6342 or foxvalleyrep.org.
"The Second City Dysfunctional Holiday Revue" also runs Dec. 13-23 at the Copley Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora. (630) 896-6666 or paramountaurora.com.
Also part of Second City's holiday tour is the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, which presents "Holiday in the Heights" through Jan. 4 at 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights. (847) 577-2121 or metropolisarts.com.
Last but not least, there's "The Second City's Nut-cracking Holiday Review" running through Dec. 30 at Up Comedy Club, at Piper's Alley, 230 W. North Ave., Chicago. (312) 662-4562 or upcomedyclub.com.
Profiles Theatre presents a 20th anniversary revival of Will Kern's well-loved "Hellcab," a gritty Chicago original about a cabdriver's encounters with an array of eccentrics during his Christmas Eve shift. It runs through Dec. 23 at 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago. (773) 549-1815 or profilestheatre.org.
Once again, Mitchel Fain dons his striped tights and pointy hat to star in Theater Wit's remount of the one-man satire, "The Santaland Diaries," adapted by Joe Mantello from David Sedaris' sly tale about his experiences working as a Macy's elf. Performances run through Dec. 30 at 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. (773) 975-8150 or theaterwit.org.
Liza Minnelli -- past and present -- gives one fan more than he bargained for in About Face Theatre's world premiere musical "We Three Lizas," with book and lyrics by Scott Bradley and music and additional lyrics by Alan Schmuckler. Described as a "dark, sexy holiday musical," the show runs Nov. 30 through Dec. 23 at the Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted St., Chicago. (312) 335-1650 or aboutfacetheatre.com.
A quartet of actors puts egos aside to deliver "Christmas in Chicago," a satirical "yuletide year-in-review" that marks a collaboration between the Chicago Commercial Collective and The Fine Print Theatre Company. It runs Dec. 13-23 at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., Chicago. See thefineprinttheatre.org.
The transvestite reindeer Hell in a Handbag Productions introduced 15 years ago returns in "Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer," David Cerda's parody. Now in its 15th year, the LGBTQ-friendly show centers on Rudolph's attempts to save Christmas with help from a "not gay enough" elf and a female prospector. The show runs through Dec. 30 at Mary's Attic, 5400 N. Clark St., Chicago. (800) 838-3006 or handbagproductions.org.
A holiday gathering takes a macabre turn in "It's Christmas, Goddamnit," running Dec. 1-29 at The Annoyance Theatre, 4830 N. Broadway, Chicago. (773) 561-4665 or annoyanceproductions.com.
A compassionate woman takes pity on a homeless man and his scraggly kitten on Christmas Eve in Jim Holt's dramedy "Sleeping Indoors," running through Dec. 15 at Gorilla Tango theater, 7924 Lincoln Ave., Skokie. (773) 598-4549 or gorillatango.com.
A prison break threatens a woman's attempts to give her son a merry holiday in 1930s Kansas in Chemically Imbalanced Comedy's "Dirty 30s Christmas," written and directed by artistic director Farrell Walsh. The show runs Fridays and Saturdays through Jan. 12 at 1422 W. Irving Park Road, Chicago. See cicomedy.com.