Bless Us: Holiday theater abounds in the Ocean State

Holiday Bingo2A few years back, Motif took a look at the RI theater holiday season and determined that the plethora of Dickens offerings amounted to one of two things – a cynical cash grab or a once-a-year experience not unlike the “Chreasters” who attend church once or twice a year and call it good. The jury is still out, but we’re no longer determined to be as judgmental about foisting multiple Tiny Tims on yet another unsuspecting generation. In previous years, some hearty renegades would break out an alternative choice – a Durang absurdity about a dipsomaniac version of Bob Cratchit’s wife, a tender Dylan Thomas reading or even a non-Christian production, gently reminding audiences that Scrooge and Bailey do not corner the market on men’s souls. This season, however, the balance of the productions seems to definitively fall in either Camp Ebenezer or Camp George. While variety may seem in short supply, the choice actually lies in which version of A Christmas Carol or It’s A Wonderful Life floats your Yuletide boat. And, while there may not be 24 different productions, it certainly feels like it, so we can offer up a few of the contenders here for your own personal RI Theater Holiday Bingo. (Go find your RI Theater Holiday Bingo card at motifri.com/holidaybingo!)

Pawtucket Community Players — It’s A Wonderful Life, the Musical! 

We’ll start with one of three Wonderful Lifes on tap this year. We have a radio play, a straight staging and, yes, a musical. Pawtucket’s version, is, like all the others, based on Frank Capra’s beloved 1946 film (and the story by Philip Van Doren Stern), the family-friendly tale of George Bailey, a man who has given up his dreams in order to help others. George’s imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody, Angel 2nd Class, who is trying to earn his wings. Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and how different life in Bedford Falls would be if he had never been born. Cue sound effect of ringing bells unless the pit orchestra has that covered.

Directed by Vincent Lupino, with musical direction by Motif award winner Ron Procopio and choreography by Karen Gail Kessler, It’s a Wonderful Life, The Musical! will be presented Nov 30 – Dec 2 and Dec 7 – 9 at Jenks Auditorium, 350 Division St., Pawtucket (across from McCoy Stadium). Fri and Sat at 7:30pm, with Sun matinees at 2pm. Audiences attending opening night, Nov 30, will be entered into a drawing for a special prize. Order e-tickets and print them at home at thecommunityplayers.net or reserve them at 401-726-6860.

RISE (Rhode Island Stage Ensemble) — It’s A Wonderful Life

Billed as a “heartwarming new production of an American Christmas classic,” this version (by James W. Rodgers) is a straightforward reading with a large dose of “passion and warmth.” Directed by Patricia Hawkridge and featuring a multi-generational cast (including a real-life father and son as Clarence and George), this production is a celebration of “family, faith and community” and “a perfect way to experience the holidays with your entire family.”

RISE’s production runs Dec 7, 8, 9 & 14, 15, 16 with Fri & Sat performances at 7:30pm and Sun performances at 2pm. The RISE Playhouse, 142 Clinton Street, Woonsocket. Tickets available at the door or in advance at ristage.org

Bristol Theatre Company and JMG Theater — It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play

Shaking up the format a little and paying homage to the period, BTC (not to be confused with Burbage Theatre Company) presents a 1940s-style radio play with live sound effects and commercial jingles.

Bristol Theatre Company, the Reynolds Arts & Wellness Center, 235 High St, Bristol. Nov 30 – Dec 15, Thu, Fri, Sat at 7:30pm & Sat, Sun at 2pm.

So, with three chances to get your wings, we move on to the Dickens. You won’t be able to swing a cup of eggnog without hitting a production of A Christmas Carol this year. Here are a few of the many.

The Contemporary Theater Company – A Christmas Carol

CTC has veered away from their joyful alternatives this year to embrace their inner Scrooge. This version of the Christmas classic comes to the CTC stage adapted from the original novella by Matt Fraza (most recently seen at CTC in the brilliant An Iliad).

What’s to say? Three spirits work to convince the crotchety Ebenezer Scrooge to embrace the spirit of Christmas. From the Fezziwigs to Tiny Tim and the Cratchits, Scrooge sees the joy of Christmases past, present and future on his journey to a better life. Filled with carols and cheer, perfect for a family outing and another fine reason to make your way down to Wakefield for a change.

The Arctic Playhouse – A Christmas Carol: A Musical

An out-and-out musical adaptation (versions of this story without some kind of musical interlude are rare, these days; too depressing, perhaps, although we’d be interested to see someone go in that direction for once).

Arctic Playhouse in West Warwick is currently in transition to its new space, so this production will take place at the West Warwick High School Auditorium, 1 Webster Knight Dr, West Warwick. Directed and scored by John Martorella, with lyrics by Philip and John Martorella, Arctic’s take runs Dec 6 at 8pm and Dec 9 at 2pm. Apparently, Dec 6 is already sold out, so cancel your plans for Dec 9 and scoop up some matinee tickets.

Trinity Rep – A Christmas Carol

What’s to say? This is the gold standard. Celebrating 41 years of New England’s favorite family holiday tradition, this show runs through Dec 30. The best seats are available for the November showings, as many, many folks use Trinity’s production as their one-play-a-year pilgrimage in December. This year’s version features original music by Richard Cumming and is directed by Mark Valdez. Stephen Thorne picks up the mantle as Scrooge. Trinity is featuring sensory-friendly performances and has a full local choir at each show. This is the big one. Arrive early and read the program to see if there might be other theater you can attend during the other three seasons.

Tickets and more information available at trinityrep.com/carol. Trinity Repertory Company, 201 Washington St, PVD.

Stadium Theatre Performing Arts Centre — A Christmas Carol: The New Musical

They call it a “brand-new musical retelling of Charles Dickens’ holiday classic” with a “lushly orchestrated Broadway-style score by Steve Parsons and witty lyrics by John Popa.” Stadium promises that this one is even more epic, more magical, and more joyous than the story of Christmas redemption you thought you knew. They claim “extravagant scenery, lavish costumes, dramatic lighting, fog and flying ghosts.” This sounds like a KISS concert, so save your farewell tour money and go see this one instead.

A Christmas Carol: The New Musical runs Dec 14 – 23. Unlike at a KISS concert, they ask that you leave children under the age of two at home. For tickets, call 401-762-4545 or visit stadiumtheatre.com. 28 Monument Square, Woonsocket.

Artists’ Exchange – A Christmas Carol

AE’s 15th annual production of Carol runs Dec 6 through Dec 22, including four school matinees at 10:30am on Dec 13, 14, 20 and 21, and a Holiday Gala & Silent Auction Fundraiser on Dec 15 at Artists’ Exchange prior to the performance. This version is written and directed by Rhiannon Lynn Annin with original music by Ethan Miller.

Performed at Theatre 82, Rolfe Square, Cranston. Buy tickets online at artists-exchange.org, by phone at 401-490-9475 or in person.

One possible option for those looking to escape the onslaught of Dickens is to see The Butterfingers Angel, Mary and Joseph, Herod the Nut and the Slaughter of 12 Hit Carols in a Pear Tree at Barker Playhouse. This irreverent and hilarious retelling of the Christmas story (by William Gibson) runs Nov 30 through Dec 9 and is directed by Vince Petronio. For tickets, call 401-273-0590 or email players1909@gmail.com. By attending this performance, not only would you support America’s oldest continuously running community theater, you’d be rebelling against everyone else in the state. How very Rhode Island.

Lastly, Mixed Magic Theatre presents their annual Great Holiday Traditions Concert on Dec 22 at 7pm. With repairs to the space in Pawtucket underway, let’s hope that a holiday miracle allows the show to continue.

Visit mmtri.com for more info.

So, play RI Theater Holiday Bingo and see how many shows you can get in before the New Year. There’s a ton of non-holiday offerings as well, for those who eschew religion in their theater or just need a respite from the angels and spirits. Either way – you win.

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