Suburban residents are among many Chicago-area theater artists making audiences merry this holiday season in shows ranging from traditional versions of Charles Dickens' signature Christmas tale to adults-only satires.
Among them are a young actress from Arlington Heights making her Goodman Theatre debut, a Bloomingdale youth minister helming his first holiday show and a Wheaton native starring as a displaced reindeer in a free-admission production.
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We asked them about the challenges of working on a holiday production and why they think these shows remain popular year after year. Here's what they had to say:
• Andrew Behling plays Dasher, who finds himself separated from his reindeer team and mounted on a taxidermist's wall in Quest Theatre Ensemble's free, family-friendly "The People's Christmas Wish." Behling, a Wheaton native, says the Chicago theater company's mission of offering audiences free theater (with donations accepted) is particularly meaningful this time of year.
"Our show becomes a gift, not a product to sell," he said, adding "Christmas shows stay lodged in the heart. I still haven't forgotten the 'Christmas Carol' productions I saw as a child. Our show in particular will strike a chord. It's original. It's simple and honest, but it has a very tongue-in-cheek sense of humor. You won't find many holiday shows like this one, I promise you that."
• "Beyond thrilled," that's how 12-year-old Haley Bolithon felt when she learned she'd be playing Martha Cratchit in Goodman Theatre's "A Christmas Carol," a role she understudied last year at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre. The Arlington Heights resident says the only real sacrifice is missing school, but it's one she's willing to make.
"'A Christmas Carol' connects people with tradition. The reason it's such a hit is because it's a timeless story and it shows that even in different centuries, people have the same values."
• This marks the second year Ian Paul Custer, of St. Charles, has appeared in American Blues Theater's annual radio play adaptation of "It's a Wonderful Life" featuring holiday carols, 1940s-style commercials, and milk and cookies after every performance.
"What holiday show is more compelling, or honest, or heartwarming (and heartbreaking) than Frank Capra's 'It's a Wonderful Life'?" said Custer, 28, who finds the audience's emotional response to the show gratifying.
"There's a reason these holiday shows have been around for so long ... The themes are universal and a great reminder of compassion. And they are fun."
• Truman Capote's "A Christmas Memory" and "Thanksgiving Visitor," semi-autobiographical accounts of the writer's adventures with his elderly cousin, are stories anyone can love, says Naperville native Max Ganet, who plays Buddy in Provision Theater's double-bill.
"They (holiday shows) really tap into a place in all of us that makes us want to treat everyone with more love and kindness," said Ganet, 25. "I think that's something that everyone wants to watch and be part of. Regardless of this being a holiday show or not, this show really hits that experience on the head."
• David Heimann, director of youth ministry of St. Isidore Parish in Bloomingdale, has performed in several holiday shows, but Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre's "A Very Merry Madrigal" marks the first such show he's directed. Inspired by the 15th-century dinner-theater tradition, Theo Ubique's version combines Renaissance and contemporary holiday music including "The Boar's Head Carol" and "Wassail," sung while dining on Cornish hen and toasting with mulled cider. Performing in a holiday show means less time with family and takes a physical toll, Heimann says, but the rewards are worth it.
"There are moments where you see a family or a child and you know you've nurtured a bit of magic in their holiday experience and that alone is something that makes it worth it. We're sharing something sacred at this time of year. It is being part of people's lives in a unique time in a unique way, and that is what we cherish as theater professionals."
• At a time of year when misers and nutcrackers dominate area stages, Raven Theatre mixes in a little mystery with its original show "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Goose," featuring Bartlett resident Symphony Sanders, 33.
"Sherlock Holmes is a character everyone knows. His quick wit and powers of deduction are truly astonishing. People are drawn to that," said Sanders who is appearing in her first holiday show. "Add in the holiday theme and you have this fun and festive element to an already amazing adventure."
• Steve Baldwin designed sound for "HoliDAZE," from Chicago's Step Up Productions. The production consists of five one-act plays examining the ups and downs of the holiday season.
"Most people enjoy this time of year and all the good feelings that go with it," the Arlington Heights native said. "This type of show just reinforces those good feelings.
"The biggest challenge for this show is working with five different directors," laughed Baldwin. "Each one has their own personality and quirks and each thinks that their show is the most important and demands to have the most attention paid to it."
• Having directed Steel Beam Theatre's back-to-back productions of "Scrooge: The Musical" in St. Charles in 2011 and 2012, Kevin Wiczer was eager to "mix things up" this year and jumped at artistic director Donna Steele's invitation to helm "Nuncrackers," Dan Goggin's holiday version of his popular "Nunsense" series.
"This show has something for everyone: fun, song-and-dance numbers, crazy jokes, touching moments and audience participation," said the Aurora resident, who directed "Nunsense II: The Second Coming" in 2008. "Nothing is better than when you involve the audience members."
• Park Ridge resident Diane M. Honeyman first performed in Silent Theatre's "A Christmas Carol" two years ago.
"I always wanted to be a part of a production of this holiday show and I was intrigued by the concept of doing it without words," said Honeyman, who plays Mrs. Cratchit in this year's production. "The art of Silent Theatre allows the actors to express themselves fully, both emotionally and physically and it resonates with the audience."
Honeyman says the demands of performing during the holidays make time with family and friends even more precious.
"However, being able to share the show with nieces as young as 3, and my mother, who is 80, is an experience I wouldn't trade for anything."
In the suburbs
• "A Christmas Carol," through Dec. 21 at Drury Lane, 100 Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace. The 60-minute version of Ebenezer Scrooge's conversion features traditional carols and offers families opportunities to have breakfast or dinner with Santa Claus at select performances. $15, performance only. Breakfast buffet: $25, $30. Dinner buffet: $30, $40. (630) 530-0111 or drurylane.com.
• "A Christmas Carol," Friday, Nov. 29, through Tuesday, Dec. 24, at the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights. Resident playwright Scott Woldman adapts Charles Dickens' tale. $30, $15.50. (847) 577-2121 or metropolisarts.com.
• "A Christmas Carol," Friday, Nov. 29, through Dec. 29 at Citadel Theatre Company, 300 S. Waukegan Road, Lake Forest. Citadel presents the world premiere of playwright MEH Lewis' adaptation of the classic holiday story. $15-$37.50. (847) 735-8554 or citadeltheatre.org.
• "A Christmas Carol," Dec. 7-9, at Paramount Theatre, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora. This Nebraska Theatre Caravan production comes to Aurora for a brief run. $25, $35, $14 on Dec. 9. (630) 896-6666 or paramountaurora.com.
• "Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol," Dec. 12-15, at Meiley Swallow Hall, North Central College, 31 S. Ellsworth St., Naperville. The Organic Theater Company presents its retelling of Dickens' tale from the perspective of his former partner who travels to the gates of hell to save Scrooge's soul. $20, $30. (630) 637-7469 or organictheater.info.
• "It's a Wonderful Life: A Radio Play," Friday, Nov. 29, through Dec. 8 at the Raue Center for the Arts, 26 N. Williams St., Crystal Lake. Williams Street Repertory presents a stage adaptation of beleaguered George Bailey, who discovers he is indeed the richest man in Bedford Falls. $25. (815) 356-9212 or rauecenter.org.
• "The Nutcracker," through Dec. 28 at Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire. Marriott Theatre for Young Audiences presents a 60-minute, musical version of Tchaikovsky's ballet about young Clara, whose beloved nutcracker transforms into a handsome prince. $15. (847) 634-0200 or marriotttheatre.com.
• "Miracle on 34th Street," Dec 8, 14 and 15 at the Improv Playhouse, 735 N. Milwaukee Ave., Libertyville. The IP Radio Players perform a 1940s radio version of the 1947 film about a Macy's Santa, a man named Kris Kringle, who insists he is the real deal. $20, $15 at the door. (847) 968-4529 or improvplayhouse.com.
• "The Snow Queen, or When Christmas Freezes Over!" through Dec. 21 at Piccolo Theatre, 600 Main St., Evanston. Piccolo premieres its British-style panto inspired by Hans Christiansen Andersen's tale about devoted Gerda, who goes to great trouble to rescue her friend Kai from the clutches of the Snow Queen. $10-$25. (847) 424-0089 or piccolotheatre.com.
Home for the holidays
• "Making God Laugh," through Dec. 29 at Fox Valley Repertory, Pheasant Run Resort, 4051 E. Main St., St. Charles. Empty nesters welcome home their adult children with humorous and poignant results in Sean Grennan's family comedy that unfolds over three decades during four different holidays. $32, $42; dinner packages available. (630) 584-6342 or foxvalleyrep.org.
• "Twist-A-Carol IV: Dr. Whoville," Dec. 6-8 at the Elgin Art Showcase, 164 Division St., Elgin. Vex Theatre Company presents its all-new holiday show consisting of several original short plays, including "Dr. Whoville," in which a time traveler helps a small town save Christmas. $10. (847) 991-8081 or vextheatre.org.
• "Nuncrackers," through Dec. 22 at Steel Beam Theatre, 111 W. Main St., St. Charles. The holiday installment of Dan Goggin's "Nunsense" series finds the nuns of Mount Saint Helen's performing a holiday cable show in their convent basement studio. $22-$28. (630) 587-8521 or steelbeamtheatre.com.
• "Holidays in the Heights," Dec. 5-31 at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights. The Second City sends up holiday traditions in this adults-only revue. $29.50, $34.50. (847) 577-2121 or metropolisarts.com.
• "The Second City's Nut-Cracking Holiday Revue," Dec. 6-22 at Copley Theatre, 8 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora. The adults-only Second City revue features an irreverent take on the holidays. $35. (630) 896-6666 or paramountaurora.com.
• "A Christmas Carol," through Dec. 28 at Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St., Chicago. Larry Yando returns to play Scrooge in Goodman's 36th annual production, directed by Henry Wishcamper and featuring onstage magic. $25-$83. (312) 443-3800 or goodmantheatre.org.
• "A Christmas Carol, Abridged," Nov. 29-Dec. 29 at 556 W. 18th St., Chicago. Three actors portray Charles Dickens' characters in Dream Theatre's condensed version of the beloved tale. $15-$18. (773) 552-8616 or dreamtheatrecompany.com.
• "A Christmas Carol: a black and white silent play," Nov 30-Dec. 29 at Prop Thtr, 3504 N. Elston Ave., Chicago. Silent films inspired Silent Theatre Company's production, done without spoken words. It's directed by Matthew Massaro and features music composed and performed by Isaiah Robinson. $15, $20. See silenttheatre.com or propthtr.com.
• "A Klingon Christmas Carol," Nov. 30-Dec. 29 at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago. Commedia Beauregard adapts for the fourth year in a row the classic tale of redemption to reflect the Klingon's Warrior Code of Honor. Performed in Klingon with English supertitles. $20, $30. (773) 338-2177 or cbtheatre.org or raventheatre.com.
• "Q Brothers' Christmas Carol," Nov. 30-Dec. 22 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago. A money-hungry Ebenezer Scrooge, a Jamaican Jacob Marley and a youngster named Lil' Tim are among the characters in this hip-hop re-imagining of Dickens' tale. This work in progress is recommended for audiences age 12 and older. $20-$35. (312) 595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com.
• "If Scrooge was a Brother," through Dec. 29 at eta Creative Arts Foundation, 7558 S. South Chicago Ave., Chicago. Writer Ekundayo Bandele re-imagines Dickens' seasonal story as a ghost tale in this Chicago premiere. $30. (773) 752-3955 or etacreativearts.org.
• "It's a Wonderful Life: Live in Chicago!" through Dec. 29 at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. Director Marty Higginbotham and ensemble members present the 12th annual production, which features holiday carols, period commercials, and milk and cookies following the performance. $19-$49. (773) 404-7336 or americanbluestheater.com.
• "It's a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play," through Dec. 29 at 1909 W. Byron St., Chicago. American Theater Company artistic director PJ Paparelli directs for the first time the company's annual holiday offering featuring new Foley sound effects and 1940s-style commercial breaks. $25-$40. (773) 409-4125 or atcweb.org.
• "The Nutcracker," through Dec. 29 at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Diversey St., Chicago. House Theatre ensemble member Tommy Rapley directs the company's annual, unique take on "The Nutcracker" story, which finds Clara trying to preserve Christmas for her family following the death of her older brother. $25-$45. (773) 769-3832 or thehousetheatre.com.
• "The People's A Christmas Wish," through Dec. 22 at The Blue Theater, on the campus of St. Gregory the Great Church, 1609 W. Gregory St., Chicago. Quest Theatre Ensemble artistic director Andrew Park and composer Scott Lamps created this musical about the attempt to reunite Dasher, who is mounted on a taxidermist's wall, with Santa and the rest of the team. Admission is free, but donations are accepted. (312) 458-0895 or questensemble.org.
• "A Christmas Memory" and "The Thanksgiving Visitor," through Dec. 29 at Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Road, Chicago. Provision adapts Truman Capote's semi-autobiographical holiday tales about a young boy whose mother sends him to live with extended family in a small town, where he develops an especially strong relationship with his elderly cousin. $10-$32. (312) 455-0066 or provisiontheater.org.
• "A Very Merry Madrigal," through Dec. 22 at No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago. Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre hosts a madrigal dinner incorporating Renaissance and contemporary music as well as poetry and variety acts. $15-$25, $15 extra for the full dinner. (800) 595-4849 or theo-u.com.
• "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer: The Musical," through Jan. 5, 2014, at the Broadway Playhouse, Water Tower Place, 175 E. Chestnut St., Chicago. Emerald City Theatre and First Stage present the stage version of the animated classic about the misadventures of Rudolph and his pals. $31.30-$72.25. (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com.
• "Elf The Musical," through Dec. 15 at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph St., Chicago. Buddy, a human child raised by Santa's elves since infancy, seeks his birth father in New York City in this stage adaptation of the 2003 film. $18-$90. (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com.
• "The Christmas Schooner," through Dec. 29 at the Mercury Theater Chicago, 3745 N. Southport Ave., Chicago. Karl Hamilton and Cory Goodrich reprise their roles as Peter and Alma Stossel in this musical by John Reeger and Julie Shannon inspired by the true story of the "Christmas Tree Ship," whose crew brought trees from Michigan to needy Chicago families during the early part of the 20th century. $20-$55. (773) 325-1700 or mercurytheaterchicago.com.
• "Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Goose," Dec. 11-29 at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St., Chicago. Michael Menendian and John Weagly added some holiday spirit to their adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle." $20. (773) 338-2177 or raventheatre.com.
• "Hellcab," through Jan. 12, 2014, at 4139 N. Broadway, Chicago. Profiles Theatre's remount of its hit 2012 revival of Will Kern's classic Chicago drama about a cabdriver working on a dismal Christmas Eve. Paul Dillon returns to the role he originated in Famous Door Theatre's 1992 world premiere. $35, $40. (773) 549-1815 or profilestheatre.org.
• "The Santaland Diaries," through Dec. 29 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. Mitchell Fain reprises his role as Crumpet, the disgruntled elf, based on David Sedaris' recollections of his stint as a Macy's elf. $24-$35. (773) 975-8150 or theaterwit.org.
• "Miracle on Wells Street," through Dec. 31 at UP Comedy Club, Piper's Alley, 230 W. North Ave., Chicago. The Second City Touring Company presents a 90-minute sendup of the holiday season. $23-$30. (312) 662-4562 or upcomedyclub.com.
• "We Three Lizas," through Jan. 5, 2014, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago. About Face Theatre's holiday musical about forgotten and forlorn Conrad who's visited by a trio of Liza Minnellis, who help him reinvent himself. $20, $45. (773) 327-5252 or aboutfacetheatre.com or stage773.com.
• "Christmas Dearest," Nov. 29-Dec. 29 at Mary's Attic, 5400 N. Clark St., Chicago. Hell in a Handbag Productions' campy, musical version of "A Christmas Carol" features, as Ebenezer Scrooge, Hollywood star Joan Crawford. $15-$25. (800) 838-3006 or handbagprodutions.org.
• "HoliDAZE," Nov. 30-Dec. 22 at The Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport, Chicago. A depressed court jester responsible for creating a holiday pageant, a family enduring a devastating loss and a middle-aged couple on a first date are among the scenarios showcased in Step Up Productions' "HoliDAZE," comprised of five one-act plays by Lisa Dillman, Tate Geborkoff, Nambi E. Kelley, Joshua Rollins and Steve Simoncic. (773) 935-6875 or www.stepupproductions.org.
• "El Stories: Holiday Train," Nov. 30-Jan. 11, 2014, at the Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago. The Waltzing Mechanics present the holiday edition of their ongoing series of vignettes inspired by real-life experiences of Chicago commuters. $20. See greenhousetheater.org for information.
• "A Sack Full of Coal," Nov. 30-Dec. 14 at Gorilla Tango Theatre, 1919 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. Whiskey Wry Productions examines commercialization, awkward gift exchanges and other holiday tribulations. $15. (773) 598-4549 or gorillatango.com.
• "Merry Christmas! (Stranger Things Have Happened)," Dec. 5-14 at 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave., Chicago. This sketch comedy revue is from Natural Gas, the Gift Theatre's house improv team. $5. (773) 283-7071 or thegifttheatre.org.
• "Silent Night of the Living Dead," Dec. 6-29 at Studio BE, 3110 N. Sheffield Ave., Chicago. The New Millennium Theatre Company puts a unique spin on their adults-only show about the challenges of celebrating Christmas during a zombie apocalypse. $15. (773) 248-5900 or nmtchicago.org.