Holiday arts: 'Tis the season for holiday shows

From hip takes on Scrooge to two glistening Nutcracker ballets, the calendar is as stuffed as a Christmas turkey

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      We’re going to go out on a Douglas fir limb here and say never—never—have there been so many ways to celebrate the holiday season via the performing arts as there are this year. Whether it’s the serene sounds of 18th-century instruments, contemporary-folk takes on Scrooge’s tale, or improv send-ups of all the tinsel-laden clichés, the cultural calendar is getting into Christmas in a big way. The following offer myriad Yuletide-themed ways to escape the mall madness.

      Off-White Christmas
      (A Vancouver TheatreSports production at Granville Island’s Improv Centre until December 17)
      As the name promises, the improv artists stand Christmas clichés on their heads, with a not-so-traditional Santa narrating the reindeer games.
      The Draw: The chance to see someone take the piss out of the candy-coated sentiments at this time of year—all with a cocktail at hand.
      The Holiday Mood: Bad Santa meets Whose Line Is It Anyway?.

      Irving Berlin’s White Christmas: The Musical and It's a Wonderful Life
      (White Christmas runs December 4 to January 2 at the Arts Club Theatre Company’s Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage; Wonderful Life runs until January 2 at the Granville Island Stage)
      The Arts Club unwraps its two nostalgia-filled classics for the holiday season, both based on classic Christmas films.
      The Draw: With White Christmas, you’ll love the old-style dance numbers and note-perfect vintage-Hollywood sets and costumes; at Wonderful Life, film buffs will love the way moments from the iconic movie meld cleverly with the stage action.
      The Holiday Mood: Imagine having Jimmy Stewart over for turkey dinner, with “Happy Holidays” playing on a gramophone.

      (A Vancouver Chamber Choir presentation at the Orpheum on December 3)
      The chamber choir celebrates its 40th anniversary with a program that lives up to its title, with the present ensemble being joined not just by the Pacifica Singers and the Vancouver Chamber Orchestra, but—near the end of the concert—by about 50 singers from the past four decades in a carol sing.
      The Draw: Undoubtedly the world premiere of Stephen Chatman’s Magnificat, written expressly for the occasion through the choir’s 40th-anniversary commission program. The group will cleverly juxtapose it with Antonio Vivaldi’s centuries-older Magnificat.
      The Holiday Mood: As festive as a giant Christmas party.

      Christmas With The Bach Choir
      (A Vancouver Bach Choir presentation at the Orpheum on December 5)
      The acclaimed group’s adult choir, children’s chorus, and youth choirs join for a 400-voice program of songs, organ, and brass.
      The Draw: Music director Leslie Dala, chorus director at the Vancouver Opera for five seasons, makes his much-anticipated debut with the main choir, conducting Daniel Pinkham’s Christmas Cantata.
      The Holiday Mood: A powerhouse choir backed by horns and organs is the musical equivalent to that gigantic decked-out Christmas tree in Rockefeller Square.

      A Traditional Christmas
      (A Vancouver Symphony Orchestra presentation at St. Andrew’s–Wesley Church from December 9 to 11; Surrey’s Bell Performing Arts Centre on December 12; South Delta Baptist Church on December 15; Burnaby’s Michael J. Fox Theatre on December 16; North Vancouver’s Centennial Theatre on December 17; West Vancouver’s Kay Meek Theatre on December 18)
      Bramwell Tovey conducts the VSO, the UBC Opera Ensemble, and EnChor in a sweeping ode to Christmas music and carols. Bard on the Beach’s Christopher Gaze narrates with thoughtful excerpts from seasonal classics.
      The Draw: True to the show’s name, people make this a holiday tradition every year, so you know there’s a reason the VSO keeps them coming back.
      The Holiday Mood: Think Victorian Christmases with sleigh bells, gingerbread-decorated trees, and roasting chestnuts.

      Christmas On The Air
      (At the Pacific Theatre from December 10 to January 1)
      Vancouver actor-playwright Lucia Frangione has penned a family-friendly show set in a fictitious Vancouver radio studio on Christmas Eve, 1949. The story centres on Percival B. Frank (Damon Calderwood), whose live show starts to go off the rails when a big snowstorm hits.
      The Draw: Frangione scripted the fresh, original take on Christmas called Cariboo Magi.
      The Holiday Mood: Time-travelling back to the Vancouver of Christmas past, amid bow ties and pleated skirts.

      Handel’s Messiah and the Sing Along Messiah (A Vancouver Bach Choir presentation on December 11 at the Orpheum Theatre, and December 12 at the Orpheum, respectively)
      In its first rendition of the rousing holiday masterpiece, the choir, under the able baton of new director Leslie Dala, brings in several Canadian soloists: soprano Allison Angelo, mezzo-soprano Lauren Segal, tenor Colin Ainsworth, and bass Alexander Dobson.
      The Draw: The first show boasts some boffo singers; the second lets you belt it out like it’s 1742.
      The Holiday Mood: Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hall-e-e-lu-jah!

      All is Bright
      (A musica intima production at Ryerson United Church on December 12; West Vancouver United Church on December 14; and Christ Church Cathedral on December 17)
      The acclaimed 12-member, conductorless choir puts its own intimate touches on seasonal fare.
      The Draw: Even with the well-known carols, you can expect the unexpected with musica intima’s offbeat and often ethereal arrangements.
      The Holiday Mood: The transcendent beauty of a simple row of candles glowing in the dark.

      The Nutcracker
      (A Goh Ballet production at the Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts from December 16 to 19; an Alberta Ballet production at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre from December 29 to January 1)
      That’s right: count ’em. There are two large-scale Nutcrackers by exquisite companies hitting local stages this Christmas season, proving you can never have too many sugarplums. But how to choose? Both have the added grandeur of live accompaniment: the Goh with the Vancouver Opera Orchestra, the Alberta Ballet with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra taking on Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s sparkling music. And both have star dancers, with Goh drawing from the Pacific Northwest and National ballets, and Alberta boasting the dancers you saw at the Olympic opening ceremonies.
      The Draw: The Goh Ballet’s rendition is a local favourite, with some big names: Sonia Rodriguez and Piotr Stanczyk from the National and Mara Vinson and Karel Cruz from the Pacific Northwest Ballet. Alberta Ballet’s boasts opulent sets and costumes by Emmy Award–winning designer Zack Brown and a $1.5-million budget.
      The Holiday Mood: Goh’s is sweet with sugarplum prettiness. Alberta’s is all about the snow-dusted opulence of Imperial Russia.

      Miracle on 34th Street
      (At the Vogue Theatre from December 16 to 18)
      The well-known classic-film story about a certain Kris Kringle (Gordon Gray) who becomes a department-store Santa and believes he’s the real St. Nick returns in a theatre version chock full of Christmas ditties.
      The Draw: A fully staged rendition of the famous Macy’s parade, with marching bands and cartoon-themed floats.
      The Holiday Mood: One that can make you believe in Santa Claus again.

      The Christmas Carol Project
      (A Brass Monkey Productions presentation at the Cultch on December 17 and 18)
      Edmonton-based folkies and singer-songwriters got into character to do a hip, musical take on the Charles Dickens’ classic. The unexpected project has become a hit in its Alberta hometown since debuting in 1996, and now Brass Monkey brings this bit of inspired madness here—Tiny Tim and all. The cast includes Bill Bourne, Dale Ladouceur, and Maria Dunn.
      The Draw: Contemporary music puts an alt spin on a classic. As the Toronto Star put it: “The Carol project is like one of those tiny presents off in the corner under the tree that you almost ignore.”
      The Holiday Mood: Ebenezer Scrooge meets cool acoustic-guitar work and Celtic-style accordions.

      Bah Humbug!
      (At the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodward’s on December 17 and 18)
      The Vancouver Playhouse’s Max Reimer directs a staged reading of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol in what’s meant to become a new seasonal tradition at the atmospheric Woodward’s space.
      The Draw: Two words: Jay Brazeau.
      The Holiday Mood: Victorian literature meets the industrial cool of the Gastown arts hub.

      A Christmas Reprise
      (A Vancouver Cantata Singers presentation at Holy Rosary Cathedral on December 18)
      Expect all the classic carols in live glory at this traditional seasonal concert. The show sells out every year, and at $15, it’s a bargain.
      The Draw: The choir is known for closing the concert with a rendition of Franz Biebl’s “Ave Maria” that’s so stirring, it often moves the audience to tears.
      The Holiday Mood: Loaded with the must-do classics, it’s like getting all your gift-shopping done at one store.

      A Phoenix Christmas
      (A Phoenix Chamber Choir presentation at Shaughnessy Heights United Church on December 19)
      New and old music mixes on a choral program accompanied by organist Roy Campbell.
      The Draw: The chance to hear classics like “Ave Maria” alongside ethereal Swedish carols and newer works, like Bob Chilcott’s haunting yet exultant Advent Antiphons.
      The Holiday Mood: A reflective sanctuary far removed from the megamall mayhem.

      The Bach Cantana Project: Festive Cantanas For Christmas
      (An Early Music Vancouver presentation at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts on December 22)
      Soprano Ellen Hargis, alto Laura Pudwell, tenor Lawrence Wiliford, and baritone Sumner Thompson sing Johann Sebastian Bach’s serene cantatas under the baton of lead violinist Marc Destrubé.
      The Draw: The authenticity of the EMV players, complete with continuos and violoncellos.
      The Holiday Mood: Advent in an 18th-century Leipzig cathedral.

      If all this seems like too much treacle and tinsel, but you’re still looking to get into the seasonal mood, several shows come holly-free. Tickets to them would also make great gifts. Check out the VSO’s sure-to-be-stunning rendition of Antonio Vivaldi’s glimmering The Four Seasons (December 17 and 18) at the Orpheum Theatre, with Dale Barltrop on lead violin and acclaimed local thesp Alessandro Juliani narrating. At the Vancouver Playhouse to December 23, Noí«l Coward’s Brief Encounter blends the moving screenplay of the classic 1946 movie of the same name with Coward’s play Still Life in innovative ways: characters jump in and out of film screens and live musicians play on-stage. And big-ticket gift givers take note: Cirque du Soleil has just announced two spring stadium shows, whose tickets go on sale on Monday (December 6): Quidam at the Rogers Arena from March 9 to 13, 2011, and Dralion at the Abbotsford Entertainment and Sports Complex from June 2 to 5, 2011. As well, DanceHouse, for the first time, is offering a partial-year, three-show subscription to its 2011 shows by Doug Elkins and Friends, Wen Wei Dance and Beijing Modern Dance Company, and O Vertigo; order by December 15 for the dance fan on your list.