Fun for the Holidays: Find the perfect off-loop show this December

 By Alexandra Garfield

The trees are bare and shopping malls are crazy. Snow is brewing in the clouds and sugarplum fairies are pirouetting in store windows.

So take a break and go to the theater. Find that perfect holiday show that the whole family can enjoy – a show that won’t make the kids fall asleep and won’t get your uncle started on his Santa conspiracy theory.

Show tickets make great gifts, too. And, luckily, Chicago is jam-packed with great performances this season for everyone on your Christmas list and almost any day open in your schedule. From Uncle Scrooge to Tiny Tim, the classic characters are there to entertain you. As Medill Reports’ gift to your family, here is your holiday show guide for great off-loop theater this December.

[field name=”Holiday Theater Map 2015″]


For the Old-Fashioned Christmas Enthusiast 

If you only see one show this season, consider It’s a Wonderful Life: Live In Chicago! Presented as a 1940s Radio Drama, eight actors perform Frank Capra’s holiday classic about finding hope and love in even the darkest of times.

This show bundles up all the best things of the season and delivers them in one heart-warming 90-minute package. The cast welcomes the audience by leading you in singing Christmas carols like Jingle Bells and Frosty the Snowman before the “On Air” lights and the story begins.

Cast of It’s a Wonderful Life: Live In Chicago! performs the holiday classic in the form of a 1944 Radio play. (Johnny Knight/Courtesy)

The cast moves from the songs to the story of It’s a Wonderful Life, playing multiple roles when necessary. The show is capped off when cast members serve milk and cookies to the audience filing out of the theater.

Presetting the story as a 1944 radio drama allows for several entertaining additions to the classic plot. Between each of the three sections of the story, you even get radio jingles performed for local businesses such as the Aquitaine Restaurant and Days Inn Chicago. Written and performed by ensemble member, Michael Mahler, the ads ground the performance in the 40s as much as the sets and costumes do.

Every detail makes you feel as if you’ve stepped back in time to the golden era of radio theater.  This festive mood-booster will leave you smiling and ready for the holidays.

It’s a Wonderful Life: Live In Chicago! Runs through Dec. 27 at The Greenhouse Theater at 2257 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets: $19-$49.

“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings”
-Clarence, It’s a Wonderful Life

For the Scrooge in Your Life

For those who just want a break from all the Christmas cheer, The Santaland Diaries is the show for you. This one-man show is based on David Sedaris’ hilarious stint as one of Santa’s elves in a Macy’s department store. For the eighth consecutive year, Mitchell Fain alone holds the stage and keeps the audience laughing for an hour and a half in Theater Wit’s 12th annual staging of this play.

Mitchell Fain gives a dryly hilarious performance as a man working as a Macy’s Christmas elf. (Johnny Knight/Courtesy)

Fain drolly recounts misadventures involving bratty children, over-zealous parents, weird co-workers and strange Santas. Fain’s acerbic and irreverent performance is sure to delight cold-hearted Christmas-haters and even sentimental holiday romantics.

But a warning is in order for those who do love the season. You may not leave this show with holiday warm-fuzzies in your heart. There are times when this satire is politically incorrect and downright insulting. If that is not your preferred style of humor, then this show may not be for you.

The Santaland Diaries runs through Dec. 30 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: $24-$36.

“I had two people say that to me today. I’m going to have you fired. Go ahead. Be my guest. I’m wearing a green velvet costume. It doesn’t get any worse than this.”
– The Santaland Diaries

For the Whole Family

If you’re looking for a new twist on a familiar classic that your kids will enjoy as much as you do, consider The Nutcracker from the House Theater.

This play features Clara, the Rat King and, of course, the Nutcracker himself. The biggest change is the Nutcracker’s identity. The Nutcracker is painted to look like Clara’s older brother Fritz who went away to war and never came home.

As Clara’s family struggles to embrace the Christmas spirit without their son, Clara imagines a rich world of imagination. At night, Fritz as the Nutcracker and other toys come to life to help restore the Christmas spirit to the house.

This play is perfect for families with young children. Songs like “Let’s Make Cookies” may not have the most original lyrics, but they captivate small children and make them bounce on the edge of their seats in excitement.

The Nutcracker (Desmond Gray) tries to protect Clara (Jaclyn Hennell) and her toys (Andrew Lund – a robot, Rachel Shapiro – a dolly,  and Chris Mathews – a sock monkey) from the Really Scary Rat (Marika Washburn). (Michael Brosilow/Courtesy)

That is not to say that the plot is simplistic. The script delicately layers the grief of Clara and her parents while maintaining a constant thread of Christmas cheer.

At its core, this play deals with grief. Clara’s parents struggle to relate to each other and the holiday in the wake of their son’s death. Clara herself use’s the nutcracker of her brother to process her feelings of pain and loss.

In one of the play’s most touching moments, Clara asks Fritz how they’re supposed to celebrate his favorite holiday without him. He admits it won’t be easy, but reminds her that she can still make Christmas special in his memory.

The Nutcracker runs through Dec. 31 at the Chopin Theater, 1543 W. Division St. Tickets: $25-$45.

“Christmas is your favorite too, don’t forget that.”
– Fritz, The Nutcracker

For the Traditionalists

If the performance at the Chopin Theater doesn’t sate your sugarplum cravings, The Nutcracker is also being performed in its traditional form. The Joffrey Ballet will perform Tchaikovsky’s holiday masterpiece accompanied by the Chicago Philharmonic at the Auditorium Theater downtown Dec. 4-27. The Auditorium Theater at Roosevelt University is at 50 E. Congress Pkwy. Tickets: $32-$129.

If it’s just not Christmas for you without Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, the Goodman Theater has your covered. In their 38th season offering this holiday favorite, the downtown theater once again banishes all “bah humbugs” by the final curtain. The show runs through Dec. 27. The Goodman Theater is located at 170 N. Dearborn St. Tickets: $25-$83.

“Bah! Humbug.”
– Ebenezer Scrooge, A Christmas Carol

For the Holiday Historian

For a fun, historical and Chicago-centric musical, consider checking out The Christmas Schooner at the Mercury Theater.

The musical tells the story of Peter Stossel and his family who brought the German tradition of the Christmas tree to Chicago. After receiving a letter from his cousin about missing the Tanenbaum, Peter decides to brave the treacherous winter storms on Lake Michigan to bring Christmas trees to the German immigrants in Chicago from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“It’s a story that anyone can relate to. It’s about love, devotion, family, promise and the power of the holiday spirit,” says actress, Brianna Borger who plays Alma Stossel, the mother of the family.

This is a musical that celebrates all forms of love – romanic, fraternal, familial and even the love between strangers. The show’s intense Christmas spirit makes it ideal to see with a group of loved ones. If you see it alone, you may cry (as this reviewer did).

Alma Stossel (Brianna Borger) and Mary Claire Daugherty (Tova Love Kaplan) share a touching moment toward the end of the show. Alma gives a branch of the Christmas tree to an Irish child,  after realizing how much the Christmas tree can mean to people of all cultures. (Time Stops Photography/Courtesy)

Ultimately, the show celebrates the endurance of the Christmas spirit and how to find it in our relationships with others.

“The true joy of Christmas is found, not in our riches but in our service to others,” says the character Peter Stossel, played by Peyton Owen.

The show incorporates religious scenes including a Jesus-related story and the recitation of a psalm. The show runs through Dec. 27 at the Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport Ave. Tickets: $25-$69.

“Life, the heartache and the glory, may long be remembered in our stories and our songs. The heartbeat of life is in our stories and our songs.”
– Cast, The Christmas Schooner

For Christmas-free Family Fun

If you’re celebrating another holiday this winter, or just want a break from the Christmas madness, check out the good-for-anytime shows. Here are two that the kids and adults alike will enjoy. And they are 100 percent holiday-free.

Mary Zimmerman’s adaptation of Treasure Island is a must-see for any adventure fan. Full of swashbuckling action, this new take on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel will leave you with treasured memories.  Make sure to check it out before it leaves Chicago for California on Jan. 30. The Lookingglass Theater is at Chicago’s historic Water Tower Water Works, 821 N. Michigan Ave. Tickets: $35-$85.

Treasure Island sets sail in a new production of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic adventure novel. John Babbo plays the leading role of young Jim Hawkins, center facing camera. (Liz Lauren/Courtesy)

You Can’t Take It With You at Northlight Theater in Skokie is perfect if you want all the holiday schmaltz with none of the tinsel. This play is actually set in summer, but the familial warmth and understanding is perfect for this season. This Depression-era class runs through Dec. 13 at 9501 Skokie Blvd. inside the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets: $25-$68.

“One morning, when I was going up in the elevator… it struck me I wasn’t having any fun. So I came right down and never went back.”
-Martin Vanderhof, You Can’t Take It With You

Photo at Top: The Cast of the Christmas Schooner celebrates bringing Christmas trees to Chicago across Lake Michigan. (Time Stops Photography/Courtesy)