Once upon a Bethlehem stable, everything connected with Christmas was new: a new baby, a new way of looking at Judaism, then a new religion altogether and (for believers) a new path to God.
Two millennia later, Christmas culture here has calcified: You can count on half a dozen “Nutcrackers” and carols from five centuries. And Santa, Sugar Plum Fairy and the Savior troop round for annual look-ins, although two-thirds of “Messiah” (covering Christ’s later life, death and resurrection) make it more apt for Easter.
Occasionally, something new turns up: “A Drag Queen Christmas” makes its local debut Dec. 12. Mostly, though, we get a familiar cycle: Theatre Charlotte’s “A Christmas Carol”(11th season), Starving Artist Productions’ “The Birth” (inspired by the writings of Frederick Buechner, 12th season), Charlotte Youth Ballet’s “The Nutcracker” (36th season with choreography by Gay Porter, touched up by Bridget Young) and especially Carolina Voices’ “Singing Christmas Tree” (63rdseason).
(1) “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: The Musical,” Nov. 24-Dec. 23, Children’s Theatre of Charlotte – Barbara Robinson’s book, in which young pariahs transform a staid Christmas pageant and are transformed by it, has the predictable charm of a Yuletide staple. Jahnna Beecham and Malcolm Hillgartner’s songs, first heard last year in CTC’s world premiere, lift this piece to a higher level. ctcharlotte.org.
(2) “The Magic of Christmas,” Nov. 30-Dec. 3, Belk Theater – Conductor Albert-George Schram, the Charlotte Symphony and Chorus reunite for seasonal music, sacred and secular. This year, there’s not only a Sunday matinee but a Saturday morning Lollipops version for kids. The O’Connor Band, led by artist-in-residence Mark O’Connor on violin, will be a musical highlight. charlottesymphony.org.
(3) “Jazz Room: Holiday Edition,” Dec. 5, Booth Playhouse – The Jazz Arts Initiative series steps up from Stage Door Theater to this bigger venue for its holiday gig. Five Charlotte-area pianists anchor an ensemble of jazz players, many of them JAI students or grads. The ticket includes a pre-concert reception. thejazzarts.org.
(4) “The Santaland Diaries,” Dec. 6-23, Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte – Somebody needs to nudge Christmas in the ribs before yielding to sentiment at last. Joe Mantello adapted David Sedaris’ story of a slacker who takes a job as a department-store elf, suffering the torments of the darned until a different kind of Santa replaces the lecherous and drunken ones. atcharlotte.org.
(5) “Clara’s Trip,” Dec. 8-10, Booth Playhouse – The show, subtitled “A Cirque and Dance Nutcracker Story,” centers around a partygoer with a broken ankle who dreams up a holiday for herself. It takes place on the ground and in the air, as shows by Caroline Calouche & Co. always do. blumenthalarts.org.
(6) “The Nutcracker,” Dec. 9-23, Belk Theater – Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux’s version got a million-dollar makeover last year; the new sets and costumes didn’t overshadow the dancers but made powerful effects of their own. The Charlotte Symphony plays live, as always, and a fundraising “Night at the Nutcracker” Dec. 8 offers food, an auction and a preview of the dances in Act 2. charlotteballet.org.
(7) “Tosco Music Holiday Party,” Dec. 9, McGlohon Theater – Tosco shows feature a wide range of artists (more than a dozen, in this case) and sing-alongs. Best of all, this night will be ecumenical: You’ll hear Chanukah tunes and Kwanzaa numbers as well as the Christmas songs you get everywhere else. blumenthalarts.org.
(8) “A Drag Queen Christmas,” Dec. 12, McGlohon Theater – The press release says, “The Naughty Tour (stars) contestants from ‘RuPaul’s Drag Race’ on VH-1, performing live on stage and rocking the catwalk. It’s an evening of holiday songs and outstanding drag performances with your favorite queens.” Trinity Taylor hosts. blumenthalarts.org.
(9) “Messiah,” Dec. 15-16, Knight Theater – Handel wrote all but one of his greatest oratorios – “Israel in Egypt,” “Saul,” “Solomon,” “Samson” – about Old Testament topics. The exception justly remains the best-loved. Self-proclaimed “Messiah” junkie Christopher Warren-Green (who conducted the Minnesota Orchestra in it last year) will lead his own Charlotte Symphony and Chorus for the first time. charlottesymphony.org.
(10) “A Soulful Noel,” Dec. 15-16, McGlohon Theater – On Q Productions’ show went live last Christmas on the New York Times’ Facebook page. Now Charlotteans get a fifth crack at this original musical revue, which reveals reasons for the season via R&B, funk, gospel and soul. (If you miss it, you can buy a studio recording.) youarenowonq.org.
(11) “Christmas at St. Mary’s,” Dec. 16, St. Mary’s Chapel – The season should also be about meditation and reflection. This concert by Carolina Pro Musica offers readings, music from medieval and Renaissance times (played in period costumes) and a retelling of the Christmas story by Bob Sweeten (Max on “The Bob and Sheri Show”). carolinapromusic.org.
(12) “The Hip-Hop Nutcracker,” Dec. 27-30, Knight Theater – Remember, the Christmas season lasts 12 days. Its last major artistic event reinterprets Tchaikovsky’s music through hip-hop dance, with digital scenery moving the story to 1980s Brooklyn. This year, Kurtis Blow (who started rapping in 1980 with “The Breaks”) serves as emcee, and there’s an electric violinist onstage. blumenthalarts.org.
This story first ran at CharlotteObserver.com.
Photos: Peter Zay