Winter's coming, and any theatergoer knows what that means: Brace yourselves for a stampede of holiday shows here, there and everywhere for the next month or so, and by that we mostly mean Christmas shows. The Bay Area has a number of long-running seasonal traditions all of its own. California Revels' The Christmas Revels, now in its 28th year, recreates the Yuletide pageantry of a different historical era every winter at Oakland's Scottish Rite Theatre, and this year the company craftily capitalizes on the popularity of Downton Abbey by setting the action in an English country manor after World War I. The nation's longest-running musical revue (since 1974), the frequently updated Beach Blanket Babylon always camps up the holidays in a big way. And Kung Pao Kosher Comedy celebrates its 21st year of Jewish comedy on Christmas in a Chinese restaurant.
Just as Nutcrackers abound in the dance world, there's a surplus population of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol at theater companies all over the Bay Area, which is especially impressive because there's no standard script adapting the Charles Dickens novella and each company is using a different version. Both San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater and Walnut Creek's Center REPertory Company have been Caroling every winter without fail for many years, as has San Jose's Northside Theatre Company, whereas Napa Valley Conservatory Theateris relatively new to the Scrooge biz. Many adaptations involve song and dance, but only Scrooge the Musical at Vallejo's Bay Area Stage actually bills itself as a musical, adapted from the 1970 film of the same name.
Khris Lewin in Marin Theatre Company's Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol; photo: Kevin Berne
And then there's the seemingly endless stream of variant tellings of the ballad of Ebenezer Scrooge. Marin Theatre Companyis only in its second year of doing a holiday-themed show at all, and this time it's Tom Mula's play Jacob Marley's Christmas Carol, which retells the story from the point of view of Scrooge's dead business partner. San Francisco's Creativity Theater (formerly known as Zeum) premieres It's Christmas, Carole!, a "human cartoon" set in the present day that focuses not on the skinflint boss Scrooge but on his curmudgeonly secretary, visited by such specters as The Ghost of Christmas Bonuses. And of course if you want to go for the full-on Dickensian experience, there's always (and I do mean always) the immersive experience of the Great Dickens Christmas Fair, now in its 35th year, in which you can wander around a fanciful version of Victorian London at the Cow Palace, shopping, eating, watching variety shows and interacting with roaming characters.
But, you know, there's only so much Tiny Tim a guy can take, and local theatres have struggled to find another Christmas classic with the same perennial appeal. Oddly enough, the one with the most staying power is The Santaland Diaries, David Sedaris' hilarious autobiographical monologue about working as a department-store elf, which David Sinaiko has been performing with Combined Artform for 12 years now. This year the play will run in repertory at SF's Eureka Theatre with another solo show, Santa Claus is Coming Out, Jeffrey Solomon's off-Broadway hit about the jolly old toy vendor coming out of the closet. Santa-centric stories are actually in short supply around the Bay, but the kid-friendly company Fantasy Forum Actors Ensemble makes a yearly tradition of putting the big guy's support staff center stage with The Biggest Gift, in which a plucky elf and some toys save Christmas.
More traditional holiday tales seem to come and go, but one that's especially ubiquitous is the classic movie It's a Wonderful Life. San Jose Stage Company, Shakespeare Santa Cruz and Redwood City's Broadway by the Bay are doing Joe Landry's radio-play adaptation with a handful of actors voicing all the characters, and Mountain View's Pear Avenue Theatre pares it down further to a one-man version called This Wonderful Life, a coproduction with the 06 Ensemble. San Francisco's Dark Room Theater, known for its campy reenactments of cult movies and TV shows, sets out to "lovingly besmirch" the holiday classic with its own adaptation.
That's not the only Christmas movie to get the stage treatment. Santa Rosa's 6th Street Playhouse tells the heartwarming tale of a boy and his BB gun in A Christmas Story, and Children's Musical Theatre of San Jose revisits a Bing Crosby classic with Irvin Berlin's White Christmas. And straight (or maybe not so straight) from the small screen, what could stuff your stocking better than drag queens dressed as Bea Arthur and Betty White? Find out when Trannyshack revives its holiday hit The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes.
Heklina, Matthew Martin, Cookie Dough and Pollo Del Mar in Trannyshack's The Golden Girls: The Christmas Episodes; photo: Kent Taylor
El Cerrito's Contra Costa Civic Theatre stages a beloved Dylan Thomas story with A Child's Christmas in Wales. And if you just can't decide which seasonal chestnut you love best, Lafayette's Town Hall Theatre Company roasts them all with the self-explanatory mashup Every Christmas Story Ever Told.
Amid all these heartwarming yarns of Christmas past, an entirely new Yuletide tale is always more than welcome. Having created the longest-running solo show in San Francisco history with Not a Genuine Black Man, about being one of the first African-American families to settle in San Leandro when it was known as one of America's most racist suburbs, comedian and radio host Brian Copeland continues to mine his personal history at the Marsh with a prequel of sorts, The Jewelry Box, about himself at age six trying to earn money to buy a gift for his mother in 1970s Oakland.
City Lights Theater Company in San Jose gives us the Bay Area premiere of Coney Island Christmas, Donald Margulies' comedy about a young Jewish girl cast as Jesus in the school nativity pageant. The North Bay gets its share of pageant high jinx as well, when Novato Theater Company unleashes The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, about whether the town's most notorious troublemakers are going to ruin the church show or raise it to new heights. San Francisco Playhouse tells a bittersweet seasonal tale with Storefront Church by John Patrick Shanley, author of the ubiquitous Doubt.
Gloria Weinstock, Carl Lumbly and Gabriel Marin in SF Playhouse's Storefront Church; photo: Lauren English
Winter isn't traditionally shorts weather, but that doesn't stop Lucky Penny Productions and Napa Valley Playhouse from airing out eight brand-new 10-minute plays in the wine country with An 8 x 10 Holiday. The Crackpot Crones juggle comedy sketches from "The Twelve Days of Family Insults" to the Chanukah story told with lesbian puppets in Crones for the Holidays: The Sequel at the EXIT Theatre. Sketch comedy is Killing My Lobster's cup of cider, and the troupe turns those talents in the obvious direction with Killing My Lobster's Winter Follies at Z Below.
And that's not getting into all the Christmas concerts, cabaret evenings and musical revues that theatres book during the holidays, such as Craig Jessup's Noel Coward celebration A Swell Noel at Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company, Winter Wonderettes at Half Moon Bay's Coastal Rep, and Connie Champagne's Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas at Feinstein's. There are more Yuletide carols being sung hither and yon than you can shake a figgy pudding at, so you don't have to go far to get your fill of all the Christmas songs you know and love, and the ones you just know you have to put up with for the next month or so.
Kimille Stingily in African-American Shakespeare's Cinderella; photo: Jay Yamada
Fairytales are always a big deal around the holidays, in part due to remnants of the British panto tradition. Cinderella is a December staple of African-American Shakespeare Company seasons year after year, and 2013 is no exception. San Jose Repertory Theatre is getting into the winter spirit in a big way with the world premiere of its own rock musical adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen, while just a few blocks away Tabard Theatre Company sets the Brothers Grimm to music with The Elves and the Shoemaker. Peter Pan is by no means season-specific, but the boy who wouldn't grow up is flying all over SF this season, first with the touring Peter and the Starcatcher at SHN's Curran Theatre and then in Custom Made Theatre Co.'s homegrown West Coast premiere of Peter/Wendy. SHN continues to court the kiddie crowd with Disney's Beauty and the Beast at the Curran after Peter flies away. Chivalry and love potions collide with lush theatricality in Tristan & Yseult by Cornwall's Kneehigh Theatre, returning to the year-end slot at Berkeley Repertory Theatre after two winters of the Britons' equally folkloric fantasia The Wild Bride.
That's just the tip of the Tannenbaum, of course. There are always more of these Santastic spectacles dashing and dancing and prancing into sight all the time, to say nothing of the glut of thematically unrelated shows booked into this always-hopping time of family outings. And if that's not a tremendous gift, I don't know what is.