The Christmas holidays are upon us and its not even Thanksgiving yet. Everywhere you look — in malls, in television ads, in the streets and storefront windows — ‘tis the season.
That’s especially true for the performing arts, where seasonal favorites of all sorts are being prepared, sugar plum fairies being outfitted, little boys everywhere practicing how to say “God bless us, every one,” venues large and small brightening up their stages and halls with traditional holiday fare searching for a new and all-inclusive way to celebrate the season for their patrons.
Christmas is about pleasing the most people, it’s about sharing in the spirit of the season, and so old stories are resurrected in old and new ways. Music as familiar as a hometown is heard again, the atmosphere and environment become rich and thick with iconic elements, from Scrooge’s nightshirt and the ghosts that haunt him to stars to wrapped packages under a tree to the full-lunged glories of symphonic music and the quieter joys of quieter carols.
We’re offering a sampler of what’s in store in the way of Christmas in the performing arts around the Washington area, and we’ll take a close look at how two institutions are approaching something old and something new, one making a traditional holiday offering new again as an institution, the other attempting to create a new tradition.
An Old Story and a New Scrooge
There is probably no story that says Christmas more loudly, more intensely and with more familiarity than Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Scrooge, Marley, Tiny Tim, the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future have become such a staple of American film, television, and theater that it’s hard to imagine Christmas without it.
Right now, productions are being prepared all over the country and a new digitally created movie starring a facsimile Jim Carrey as Scrooge has already hit theaters.
Meanwhile, the folks at Ford’s Theatre are busy finishing rehearsals for its own production. With some interruptions, “A Christmas Carol” at Ford’s Theatre is as much a Washington seasonal tradition as the lighting of the National Christmas Tree. As a result, the show has been seen by critics as something of a sentimental chestnut. Audiences, tourists and locals alike flock to it.
This year, it’s a brand new show. “We’ve added lots of music to the show, Christmas music and carols,” new director Michael Baron said. “That’s going to be a crucial element of the show. They say Dickens practically invented Christmas, so we added a true magical, seasonal element with the music. There’s a real flavor and sense of period and place to.”
“The odd thing,” Baron, who directed Signature Theatre’s cabaret series, said, “is that in England they don’t do the show. They do pantomimes and such.”
This production has something else that’s bound to make it fresh. That’s the presence of Edward Gero, one of Washington’s most honored, down-to-earth, natural actors taking on the part of Scrooge. Gero, who’s played everyone from Nixon to Bolingbroke to haunted, drunken contemporary Irishmen, knows that there’s not just the ghost of Christmas past here, but the ghosts of Scrooges past too.
“Oh God yes,” he said. “That dark, really scary Alistair Sims, George C. Scott, Albert Finney, Patrick Stewart, and, yeah, Mr. Magoo. That’s a long line, not to mention the people who’ve done it here. It’s a challenge, but you know, performing here at the Ford’s Theatre has always been on my bucket list, and I suppose, yeah, doing Scrooge.”
It’s hard to imagine Gero as Scrooge, or as anyone. He is the least chameleonlike of actors, a regular guy, blunt, funny, of Italian heritage, almost a working man’s actor. His wife is a district elementary school teacher, and while he teaches at George Mason University and does narrations and voice overs and some television, he is the essential great community actor who’s performed with almost all of the theaters in Washington.
“It’s a ghost story, it’s the Christmas story,” he said.”I’m looking forward to being Scrooge, he’s a haunted man long before the Marley and the ghosts come, haunted by his childhood, haunted by the past.”
“A Christmas Carol” begins Nov. 23.
Out of the darkness, into the light
If Scrooge rewards and reassures audiences with traditional material made rich again, “Take Joy!” the big Christmas show at the Music Center at Strathmore, takes a radical new approach to seasonal entertainment.
“It’s different, it’s spectacular, we’ve tried to present something that will be special to people who are living regular lives today, right here and now,” Eliot Pfanstiel, president and CEO of Strathmore and executive producer for “Take Joy!” said. “It begins almost as soon as you walk toward the center, over the bridge, with the sights and sounds of all sorts of music, carolers, people dressed for the season.”
“It’s the solstice, the darkest night of the year,” Pfanstiel said. “It’s a journey from the darkness into the light, a journey taken by a group of people, family and a shepherd in search of a pageant.”
At play is the poetry of Dylan Thomas and Emily Dickinson, traditional Christmas music, gospel music, hip-hop, classical, folk and Celtic. “Call it a new kind of holiday show, wholly original, transforming and transporting. It’s not any one thing, just as the holidays don’t mean one thing for everybody. It’s about a community gathering together on the darkest night of the year and coming out into the light at evenings end.”
Pfanstiehl, sometimes the perfect example of CEO as inventive boy, nurtured this project with Director Jerry Whiddon, Composer Roger Ames and Producer Jeff Davis. They all worked together at Street 70 in the 1970s, a homegrown theater which evolved into the Roundhouse Theater.
“Take Joy!” which includes the wondrous F. Faye Butler, Jennifer Timberlake and Robert Quay in the cast, will be performed Dec. 18 and 19.
Nutcracker, Nutcracker, Nutcracker
If you look long enough during the holidays, you’re going to find a Nutcracker. Here’s three for everyone.
For the Washington Ballet, no less a personage than George Washington is featured in Septime Webre’s beautiful, lush imagining of “The Nutcracker,” with Washington in full uniform taking on the role of the heroic Nutcracker and King George III donning the role of the Rat King. It’s a Washington tradition that’s presented at the THEARC Dec.3-5 and at the Warner Theatre Dec. 10-27.
At the Kennedy Center, the Pennsylvania Ballet comes to town for seven performances of George Balanchine’s “The Nutcracker” Nov. 24-29.
What’s special about this production is that it marks the D.C. premiere of the Balanchine version, which the Pennsylvania Ballet has performed since 1969. It’s a spectacular production with 192 costumes designed by Judanna Lynn and new sets by Peter Horne. The Kennedy Center Opera House Orchestra will accompany the production, which will feature the Norwood Middle School Chorus.
Meanwhile, the Puppet Company at Glen Echo Park will present its puppet version of “The Nutcracker” through the holiday season.
Christmas at the National Gallery
The National Gallery of Art will have caroling in the west building rotunda with families and visitors singing along with guest choirs and ensembles Dec. 12, 13, 19 and 20. In addition, there will be holiday concerts on Sundays in the west garden court of the west building Dec. 13, 20 and Jan. 3.
Music, music and other occasions
Washington Revels presents its annual Christmas Revels December 12 and 13 at Lisner Auditorium, featuring Renaissance Italy, Leonardo Da Vinci and celebrating Italian holiday traditions with music and dance.
The Dumbarton Concerts in Georgetown present one of the most alluring, beautiful holiday concerts in town with its annual “A Celtic Christmas” with the Linn Barnes and the Allison Hampton Celtic Consort
It’s at Georgetown’s historic Dumbarton Church December 5, 6 and Dec. 12 and 13.
The Folger Consort will be celebrating the Christmas holidays in the Elizabethan Theatre at the Folger Shakespeare Library Dec. 11-20 with “In Dulci Jubilo,” a concert of the festive Christmas music of 17th-century composer Michael Praetorius, considered to be the man responsible for creating the German Lutheran chorale tradition.
The 21st Annual Christmas Concert for Charity at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception will be performed on Dec. 4, featuring the Catholic University Chorus and Symphony Orchestra and other artists.
Discovery Theater will present its seasonal extravaganza “Seasons of Light,” celebrating the holiday traditions of Sankta Lucia, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas and Ramadan in December.
Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Conductor Marin Alsop brings a very different version of Handel’s “Messiah” with a re-envisioned gospel version “Too Hot to Handel: The Gospel Messiah” at the Music Center at Strathmore Dec. 13.
At the Kennedy Center, there’s the NSO Pops with “Happy Holidays,” conducted by Marvin Hamlisch Dec. 10-13 and the National Symphony Orchestra performing the “real” Handel’s Messiah Dec. 17-20.
The Waverly Consort brings its performance of “The Christmas Story” to the Terrace Theater with its eight singers and five instrumentalists Dec. 16.
There’s also free stuff: the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center will include performances by the U.S. Army Blues performing Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s “Nutcracker Suite” on Dec. 1, a “Merry TubaChristmas” on Dec. 13, holiday vaudeville on Dec. 26-27 and an all-star Christmas Day jazz jam.
Plus there’s the annual “Messiah Sing-Along” performed since 1972 in the Concert Hall.
Finally, there’s the annual holiday doings at Union Station, featuring all things Norwegian, including a tree-lighting ceremony of a 32-foot Christmas tree on Dec. 3 and Toys for Tots and a model train ceremony Nov. 24.