A DANGEROUS TREND is emerging in Seattle-area theaters this year, much more insidious than the usual attempt to exploit the general fog of good cheer and generosity that the holiday season evokes: A heck of a lot of the shows on offer, rather than being the sort of shoddy, manipulative efforts that we've grown to expect, are actually pretty good. It's a shock akin to finding yourself genuinely moved by an Andy Williams Christmas Special.
A Christmas Carol
A Contemporary Theater till December 26
TAKE ACT'S ANNUAL production of A Christmas Carol, now in its 24th year, a show that should be, by all rights, deader than a Dickensian doornail. My fifth visit to the show, however, was a pleasantly painless experience that delivered the redemptive goods with a fresh flair. Several of the performers from previous years are back, but a lot of roles have been shifted, so that David Drummond, for example, who last year was a gargantuan Ghost of Christmas Present, is now a gawky linebacker of a Bob Cratchitt, possessing an emotional tenderness all the more moving in such a large man. And it's scarcely plausible that Jeff Steitzer, a hair-raising Marley a couple years ago, could make such a jovial Fezziwig. As for Peter Silbert as Scrooge (he alternates with David Pichette), he's so tightly crabbed and miserable an old cuss that you kind of wish the ghosts would knock him about some on his road to redemption. Director Richard E.T. White also has some sly, original touches all of his own, like reimagining the Ghost of Christmas Past (Kimber Lee) as a spritely chimney sweep.
A Sanders Family Christmas
5th Avenue Theater till January 1
THEN THERE'S A Sanders Family Christmas over at Taproot, which in the wrong hands could be the sort of sentimental blackmail that should come with its own ransom note. A sequel to Smoke on the Mountain, the company's hugely successful show in 1992 and 1996, this rejoins this cheerful clan of musicians on a return visit to the Mount Pleasant Baptist Church in North Carolina on Christmas Eve, 1941. With son Dennis about to ship out with the troops and Uncle Stanley back from a stint as a singing cowboy in a Gene Autry movie, opportunities abound for tearful speeches about the importance of family, but director Scott Nolte's focus is much more on such delicious comic bits as Mama Sanders (Theresa Holmes) "testifying" about how while bad little children don't get presents from Santa Claus, bad little Christians risk more serious consequences. While the show's church milieu may be off-putting to some audiences, it shouldn't be; the message of the show is much more about family affection than religiosity, and the sweetly ineffective Reverend Oglethorpe (Mark Lund) isn't exactly built along the "fire-and-brimstone" model. Best of all there's the music, overseen by veteran musician Edd Key (who also plays Papa Sanders), a skillful and joyous score of traditional bluegrass, country, gospel, and carols.
The Snow Queen
Theater Simple till December 30
IF YOU'RE LOOKING FOR some seasonal entertainment with a little more to chew on, consider The Snow Queen, Theater Simple's adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale that's one of those few shows that while ostensibly for children has plenty for the grownups to appreciate. Andersen's original stories are not at all sugar-coated confections; change, heartbreak, and even death are part of his world, and all are present, along with several healthy bushels of theatrical invention, in this ultra-elegant production. Against a white backdrop and with a set of props and costumes that are almost Noh-like in their simplicity, director Rachel Katz and an immensely strong cast tell the story of a clever young girl who tries to save her best friend from a heartless life by challenging the frigid magic of the Snow Queen. Everything in this world, from flowers to a river to the sun itself, is filled with life and personality, and evoked through superbly detailed work. The company includes Maria Glanz (as, among other things, a magical mirror, a grandmother, and a wise ruler), Andrew MacLean (a dandy reindeer and a wicked devil), Deb Fialkow (a feisty bandit's daughter and a truly treacherous Snow Queen), Kirsten Laurel (as the ever-faithful Gerta), and K. Brian Neel, whose varied roles include the goofiest yet most believable crow you'll see outside of a city dumpster. It's a tribute to a lot of smart artists and the power of the imagination, and perhaps the most magical show on offer this season.
The Dina Martina Christmas Spectacular
On the Boards till December 26
DINA MARTINA HAS BEEN entertaining, and perplexing, Seattle audiences for 10 years, and this year's production of The Dina Martina Christmas Special is the most elaborate yet. We not only have the bizarre Ms. Martina (Grady West) entertaining us with her characteristic malapropisms, half-remembered song lyrics, and galumphing attempts at choreography, but we're also treated to Pickles the dancing elf, several performing television technicians, a guest appearance from someone dressed up as Mr. Peanut, and her adopted child, Phoebe (pronounced, that's right, "Fo-ee-bee"). The only problem with Kevin Kent's extravaganza is that because so much else is involved, there's less Dina than one normally receives. Much of the stage business and sight gags are funny, but rarely do they match the hilarious moments when Martina gets to interact with her audience and give her inspiringly awful performances. Here's hoping that next time around she's allowed to remain firmly center-stage.
Owen Meany's Christmas Pageant
A Contemporary Theater till December 26
FINALLY, IN AN ATTEMPT to achieve a Scroogelike moment of seasonal forgiveness, I headed off to see Owen Meany's Christmas Pageant, Book-It Theater's annual adaptation of an episode from the John Irving novel. Normally I stay away from Book-It because of an only partially rational bias: their commitment to including every "he said, she said" from the literary works they stage. I am happy to report that I found this a slick and amusing piece of work, relating the attempts of the squeaky-voiced Owen (played with a disquieting precision by Stephen Hando) to reform the annual Christmas pageant to his own specifications, with truly disastrous results. The piece has a dark and melancholy undercurrent carried over from the novel, but it's primarily a light trifle that gives a lot of comic opportunities to a great number of Seattle actors. So while I'm no convert to the company's peculiar dramatic affectations, I can heartily recommend this show for folks looking for a pleasant blend of the bitter and the sweet this holiday.