CHRISTMAS SHOWS ARE the comfort food of the local theater season, and as easy as they are to dismiss, you can't completely ignore the appeal of their traditional meal. Something in us is furtively drawn to sentimental repetition, to the cozy familiarity of the home-cooking aesthetic. For better or worse, audiences often want the usual trimmings with their turkey. You can be ironic, after all, about the green-bean-and-cream-of-mushroom-soup casserole your mother hauls out every year for the holidays, but aren't you going to eat it? And don't you kinda want to eat it?
Theaters know good and well how essentially helpless the masses truly are with holiday appetites—and they bank on it. A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) reports that its annual A Christmas Carol, now in its 26th year, makes 18 percent to 20 percent of the company's earned income; Nutcracker over at Pacific Northwest Ballet is responsible for 40 percent of its total annual attendance. Christmas standbys can also bring in new demographics—the very young or the curious who might not otherwise set foot in a theater. A seasonal hit can distinguish companies, which is why each year brings new spins on classics looking for their own piece of the pie: rock 'n' roll Carols, butoh Nutcrackers, et al.
And, yes, for some of us, the season is a chore. Count Weekly writers among the earnest but weary. Oh, we mean well, but when it comes right down to it, someone else has set a familiar supper, and we have to deal with the cleanup. We're looking at our watches, wiping up after the final "Bah, humbug," or sweeping away the last few steps of the sugarplum fairies. Which is why, this year, we tried to energize the countdown by turning our usual Carol critic into a novice Nutcracker over at PNB, and our dance critic into a possible Scrooge for a Sunday matinee at ACT.
Seattle Center, Opera House, 292-ARTS, $15-$84 call for various times and days ends Thurs., Dec. 27
7:20 P.M. Audience entering lobby looks exhilarated at the prospect of seeing a ballet. I have never been exhilarated at the prospect of seeing a ballet. Suddenly feel very bourgeois.
7:45 P.M. Maurice Sendak has done the set and costume design. The music swells in anticipation of the curtain rising to reveal Sendak's world. It pays off: Everything is storybook warm and bright. The show looks terrific.
7:46 P.M. Performers start miming with their hands and eyebrows, dancing with dolls.
7:47 P.M. How long is this?
7:50 P.M. A performer waddles onstage playing Herr Drosselmeier, the man who frightens young heroine Clara and brings the Nutcracker to the Christmas party. He's doing some kind of cutesy, doddering old man shtick. This guy is going to drive me right up the wall.
8:00 P.M. Realize I have no idea what's going on. Should've read the synopsis. Feel like ignoramus.
8:07 P.M. A huge lighted Christmas tree unfolds toward the ceiling to swelling music. Am sucker for stuff like this, and it doesn't disappoint.
8:10 P.M. A 27-foot Mouse King pops out from stage right. Cool. If I were a kid, I would've wet myself.
8:16 P.M. Clean, lovely pas de deux between Clara and Prince on a gorgeous, impressive setting complete with falling snow. Have unclean thoughts about the Prince's impressive can.
8:26 P.M. Intermission. Well, that wasn't too bad at all.
8:46 P.M. Clara and her fantasy beau sail on a ship with dolphins leaping about them. Nice. Women behind me "mmm" and "oooh" appreciatively in that Seattle way that indicates They've Been to the Theater Before.
9:03 P.M. An oversized Sendak Chinese tiger comes out for a playful frolic. Few things sound as good as the little kids in the audience really cracking up in delighted response.
9:22 P.M. Wonder if the Gap is having a pre-Christmas sale. Need a good winter cap. Clara and friend continue to romp about romantically, so things must still be OK for them.
9:30 P.M. Clara wakes up. It was all a dream. Isn't that always the way?
A CHRISTMAS CAROL
A Contemporary Theatre, 700 Union, 292-7676, $10-$36 call for various times Tues.-Sun. ends Sun., Dec. 23
2:10 P.M. "Old Marley was as dead as a doornail." Judging by their reaction, many people in the audience seem to know Dickens' story by heart. You can tell when the script gets to a familiar bit, or, more irritatingly, skips their favorite line.
2:15 P.M. Scrooge's response when he is visited by two men raising money for the poor—that he already supports the workhouse and the poorhouse with his taxes—reminds me of Tim Eyman. Michael Morgan-Dunne gives a more varied performance in the lead than the usual undeviating miser.
2:28 P.M. Marley rises from hell—or a trapdoor in the floor, depending on your point of view—looking like he's survived a cartoon explosion: his hair sticking out and face smeared with soot. He's miked, which is supposed to make him seem more supernatural but makes it difficult to hear some of the "mortal" lines.
2:33 P.M. Ghost No. 1 shows up with a very swoopy walk in a Louis XIV outfit with a pale wig and a crystal walking stick. She's either a real ghost or an escapee from a lunatic asylum.
2:45 P.M. The Fezziwigs—both played very broadly. Mrs. F.'s "Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year" generates the first audible sniffles in the audience and one substantial nose blowing.
2:52 P.M. Ghost No. 2, bare chested on a chaise lounge next to the pool like a movie star. Purple toenails are a nice touch.
3:01 P.M. "God bless us, every one," the ultimate Carol line, spoken with an attractive lisp by Tiny Tim.
3:07 P.M. Ignorance and Want enter, crawling up from a trapdoor and snaking across the stage; they are truly disturbing.
3:08 P.M. Ghost No. 3—standard version with a long black cloak, no lines, and a lot of fancy finger-pointing.
3:26 P.M. After Scrooge realizes it's his funeral, the script starts folding in on itself, conflating several scenes and eliminating the idea of Scrooge as an anonymous benefactor. Since this is a favorite part of mine, I get confused.
3:29 P.M. A brisk curtain call and we're out. The show is a well-oiled machine—a reliable, straightforward production hitting all the major plot points in a plummy English style.