'Nutcracker' again? Go ahead, bring it on!

Times Staff Writer

The eye-rolling. The heavy sighs. The reaction of dance, music and theater companies facing their umpteenth "Nutcracker," "Messiah" or "A Christmas Carol"?

The answer might be surprising: not necessarily.

Audience enthusiasm helps companies keep it real -- and fresh. So does the challenge of reinvigorating what is bread-and-butter fare for many.

Not that such a positive attitude is unanimous, said David Wilcox, artistic director of Long Beach Ballet.

"A lot of artistic directors go, 'Oh, God, "The Nutcracker." ' But we love it," he said. "I always see 'The Nutcracker' as exciting and fresh, and this is our 25th year. Our production is a huge spectacle and every year we like to do something a little different to it."

"We're not talking about a museum piece," said Sarma Rosenberg, choreographer for Anaheim Ballet's 20th annual "Nutcracker." "It's not something that can't be poked and prodded.

"My cast is what I think my audience is: Seniors play the senior roles; young adults play the young adult roles and children play children. I know if I can get them fired up that's the response I'll get from my audience."

But what about all those "Christmas Carols"? Aren't they enough to make even Dickens suffer from Scrooge-fatigue?

Few "Christmas Carols" are as lavish or as venerable as Costa Mesa-based South Coast Repertory's 27-year-old Victorian-style extravaganza, a must-see for longtime fans.

"When we leave the theater," said Don Edwards of Westminster, "all of the adults look at each other and say, I guess now we can say that the Christmas season is officially open."

But what about the production's Scrooge, who keeps coming back for more?

Hal Landon Jr., who was in his late 30s when he took on the role 27 years ago ("I don't need makeup anymore"), always finds something new in the play.

"This year, I got this image of how much fear is behind what Scrooge has become, so I've worked quite a bit with that." (Chances are that fans will notice. "They change the show a little bit every year," said Margit Motta of Newport, "and we always murmur to each other about it.")

Many companies, of course, make more radical changes. International City Theatre's take on Dickens is never the same twice, said director caryn desai. The company's 5-year-old "A 'Circus' Christmas Carol," adapted by Doris Baizley, features actors as clowns and acrobats who become just about everything in the tale, even the furniture.

"Although it's similar thematically each year," desai observed, "the cast members and their circus skills are different. This year we have a champion jump-rope artist, a stilt walker, jugglers and someone who walks on a large ball.

"Whether we'll continue to do it forever, I don't know, but it's scheduled again for next Christmas."

Even twisted holiday offerings that have become local traditions -- the 11-year-old, politically incorrect "Bob's Holiday Office Party" and 5-year-old "A Mulholland Christmas" to name two -- must fire up their muses.

Fans follow Joe Keyes and Rob Elk's tipsy, nomadic "Bob's Holiday Office Party" to small L.A.-area theaters year after year. This year's is at the Zephyr Theatre in Hollywood.

The show was intended as a one-nighter 11 years ago, Elk explained. "We had the idea it would take place in an insurance agent's office, we had the characters in mind and we just improvised it. Now we add to it every year and try to pack as many jokes into it as we can."

In this year's production of Bill Robens' "A Mulholland Christmas Carol," a Dickens-inspired musical that recasts Scrooge as L.A.'s controversial early water baron William Mulholland, Theatre of NOTE has teamed for the first time with another veteran Hollywood company, Sacred Fools Theater.

References to L.A. history, theater and various holiday film classics "that we poke a happy stick at," are an incentive for audiences to return to catch details they missed before, said director Kiff Scholl.

"I smoosh my own thumbprint on to the show and there's always new cast members, new bits, new harmonies, even new songs."

Dylan Thomas' poignant remembrance, "A Child's Christmas in Wales," is another seasonal piece with a loyal following, including a family of actors that has performed it in various incarnations for 20 years.

This year, Danny Overbeck, his wife, Marnie Crossen, and stepfather Gary Bell return to the Gem Theatre in Garden Grove, where the production began in 1986 as the Grove Shakespeare Festival's holiday staple under producing artistic director Tom Bradac, who left the company and launched Shakespeare Orange County in 1992.

"It was a show we had done for so many years," said Bradac, who is bringing it back to the Gem. "We've gotten a lot of response from those who remember it from 16 or 20 years ago."

Los Angeles Master Chorale is preparing for its 28th annual presentation of Handel's "Messiah," and enthusiasm hasn't dimmed, said Grant Gershon, the group's music director. Performing at Walt Disney Concert Hall, the company, for the first time, will do two singalongs, in response to audience demand.

Gershon has assigned different soloists to each singalong, one strategy to keep the piece alive for singers and audiences.

Because Handel rewrote and reconfigured his "Messiah" many times too, "you have some liberty to craft it and cut and paste it as you see fit," Gershon pointed out. "It's the kind of piece that can run the gamut of interpretations and vocal approaches."

And there's one thrill that never palls: "The sound of 2,000 people singing the " 'Hallelujah!' Chorus' when you're standing on stage is unbelievable."

Perhaps no company epitomizes the power of holiday nostalgia, however, more than L.A.'s 46-year-old Bob Baker Marionette Theater, still headed by master puppeteer Baker, who is 82. Adults brought to the theater as children to see flying carpets, a Chinese dragon and waltzing flowers in Baker's "Nutcracker!" puppet spectacular bring their own children today.

"We've been getting record crowds this year," said Baker, who created the show in 1976. "One lady just walked up to me and said, 'I haven't been here for 20 years and it's more exciting now than it was 20 years ago.' "




Holiday fare

A sampling of performances that are returning for the holidays:

Bob Baker's Nutcracker!, Bob Baker Marionette Theater, L.A. Ends Jan. 28. (213) 250-9995, www.bobbakermarionettes.com

Bob's Holiday Office Party Zephyr Theatre, Hollywood. Ends Dec. 31. (323) 852-9111, www.plays411.com

A Child's Christmas in Wales Grove Theater Center, Garden Grove. Ends Dec. 17. (714) 744-7016, www.chapman.edu/shakespeare

A Christmas Carol South Coast Repertory, Segerstrom Stage, Costa Mesa. Ends Dec. 24. (714) 708-5555, www.scr.org

A "Circus" Christmas Carol International City Theatre at Long Beach Performing Arts Center. Ends Dec. 17. (562) 436-4610, www.ictlongbeach.org

The Glory of Christmas Crystal Cathedral, Garden Grove. Ends Dec. 30. (714) 544-5679. For schedule, go to www.crystalcathedral.org

A Mulholland Christmas Carol Sacred Fools Theater, Hollywood. Ends Dec. 23. (310) 281-8337. www.theatreofnote.com

Messiah singalong, Los Angeles Master Chorale, Walt Disney Concert Hall, L.A. Monday and Dec. 18. (800) 787-5262, www.lamc.org

'The Nutcracker'

Anaheim Ballet, McKinney Theatre, Saddleback College, Mission Viejo. Ends Sunday. (949) 582-4656. www.anaheimballet.org

Inland Pacific Ballet, Bridges Auditorium, Claremont College, E. 4th St., Claremont. Ends Dec. 17. (909) 607-1139. www.ipballet.org

Long Beach Ballet, Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center. Dec. 22-24. (562) 436-3661, www.longbeachballet.com

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