By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
You can't swing an elf without hitting a Christmas-themed play or musical in Dallas theaters this week.
And for swinging elves, there's no better one than Crumpet, the sassy alter ego of writer David Sedaris in his one-man comedy short, The Santaland Diaries. Contemporary Theatre of Dallas has produced this show as a holiday treat for the past few years, always starring Dallas actor Nye Cooper as Crumpet. (Cooper also did the show for many years at WaterTower Theatre.) It's dark, wickedly funny stuff; Sedaris spent one hellish December working as an elf in the Manhattan Macy's Santaland and got famous performing an essay about it on NPR. Cooper's performance, as directed by Coy Covington, is a delicious dash of bitters in the season's theatrical punchbowl.
I've reviewed Santaland Diaries seven or eight times over the past decade (I'm seeing it again this week). The only bad review I've ever given it was the year WaterTower tried an actor other than Cooper in the role. If he wants to, Cooper could go on playing Crumpet the cranky elf for another 10 or 20 Decembers. I will happily keep going to see him do it.
I mention this show because it doesn't change much, nor does it need to, from year to year. At Dallas Theater Center, however, they tweak their lavish staging of A Christmas Carol, back again on the Kalita Humphreys stage on Turtle Creek, each season to make it seem like a fresh, new production worth returning to. They're still using the music-infused adaptation by Richard Hellesen and David de Berry of Charles Dickens' "ghost story of Christmas" that they've presented for the past five years, but this time around it's bigger, brighter, scarier and sweeter than it's ever been.
The biggest changes are some clever shifts in casting. Resident company member Matthew Gray, who's been in the show many times, directed this year's version with one rule in place: No actor could play a role in it that they'd played before. Chamblee Ferguson, who'd been Bob Cratchit, now moves into the starring role of the twisted miser, Ebenezer Scrooge. Christina Vela, formerly Mrs. Cratchit, gets a comedy turn as tipsy party hostess Mrs. Fezziwig. Liz Mikel, a past co-star as Ghost of Christmas Present, roars into the role of the Ghost of Jacob Marley, an unconventional casting switch that works remarkably well. Lee Trull, who'd earlier played one of the comically droll Undertakers, now is seen in more serious moments as the young Ebenezer and as Scrooge's goodhearted nephew, Fred.
Everyone's terrific in their new characters, particularly Ferguson. Always skilled at parts requiring physical comedy, Ferguson keeps his Scrooge angry and tightly contained until the end, when, after visits by three terrifying specters showing him Christmases past, present and future, he's reborn as a happier, more generous fellow.
Company members Cedric Neal and Abbey Siegworth add interesting new flavors to the roles of Christmas Past and young Scrooge's heartbroken fiancée, Belle. Regan Adair plays Bob Cratchit with touching subtlety, with the lovely Emily Gray as his wife. They're both wonderful. And when you go to this show, hope that the cast you're seeing features adorable little Marlhy Murphy as Tiny Tim. She's the best crutch-wielding wee Cratchit they've ever had. (She alternates with Mark Fisher.)
A Christmas Carol returns with the same clock-festooned scenery by Bob Lavallee that DTC's always used for this version of the play. It's perfectly suited to the curves of the Kalita stage, with its revolving center section employed for fine effects. Lighting by Matthew Richards and sound design by Curtis Craig deliver some delightfully scary surprises that elicited spontaneous shrieks from the opening night audience. All-new costumes by Wade Laboissonniere blend warm-hued velvets with pale flowery prints and woolly scarves and capes—when the large cast is all gathered onstage, it's a grand spectacle of pretty colors and textures. Dickens' fog-draped London streets are crowded with urchins and beggars here, warming their hands over coal fires and dodging in and out of murky shadows haunted by those ghosts. The party scenes take place under golden candlelight and beneath an oversized ornament dripping with sparkly crystals.
Yes, this is A Christmas Carol that's managed to outdo itself.
Smaller, simpler but no less heartwarming is One Thirty Productions' reprise of the charming Sanders Family Christmas at the Bath House Cultural Center. The matinee-only company (aimed at the don't-drive-at-night demographic) had a big hit with this last year and there's no reason they shouldn't this time, too.
Set in the early days of World War II in a little mountain town in North Carolina, the musical by Connie Ray finds the Reverend Oglethorpe (Stan Graner) welcoming the Sanders, a family of Jesus-praisin' bluegrass singers, to his little church on Christmas Eve. Hymns and carols sung by the cast, who accompany themselves on piano, bass fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar and piano, include familiar yuletide selections twanged up bluegrass-style, plus some novelties such as "Cactus Christmas Tree."
The returning actors—Graner, Willy Welch, Sonny Franks, Pam Pendleton, Katharine Gentsch, Cayman Mitchell and Marianne Galloway—hit the comedy with impeccable timing and don't wring too much schmaltz out of dramatic monologues about the young Sanders boy (Mitchell) who's going off to war or the backstory of the ex-con uncle (Welch) who's found redemption. The romantic scene where the nervous preacher proposes to the Sanders' deaf, old-maid daughter (Galloway) is enough to make even Scrooge tune up to cry.
If more families were this musical and mellow at the holidays, we'd all have a better time getting through them.
To entertain any little squirmers in your household, let them spend an hour with The Snow Queen, the exquisitely performed production by Kathy Burks Theatre of Puppetry Arts at the Dallas Children's Theater. This Hans Christian Andersen tale is one of his scariest: Pierced through the heart by a shard of ice, a boy named Kai runs away from his family and joins the hateful Snow Queen in her frozen palace. Only the love of his sister Gerda (voiced nicely by Arianna Movassagh), who searches the world to find him, warms his heart enough to destroy the Snow Queen's powers.
The adaptation by DCT's B. Wolf, who also wrote original music for the show, moves gently from scene to scene, aided by inventive video projections by Randel Wright. Puppet designers Burks, Beck Schlabach and Sally Fiorello have created a fur-and-feather menagerie to surround the expressive child-puppets, including a polar bear, a talking crow and a snarly dog. The turban-wearing title character has a glamorously scary face—a little Joan Collins, or maybe vintage Phyllis Diller.
How masterful is the puppeteering in The Snow Queen? When Gerda and Kai are at last reunited, it's so emotional you'll swear there are tears on their little faces.
They may be puppet-thespians, but these players are never guilty of wooden acting.