Like the creeping tinsel at the mall, holiday shows in Chicago seem to start earlier each year. This season, it was "White Christmas" at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire even before the trick-or-treaters had ventured forth from their stoops. But bear in mind that theaters know how much Chicago audiences love their seasonal entertainments. If, like me, you're an urban romantic in love with the classic downtown experience, this is the golden time of the year, full of family members enjoying the arts together and cramming in a live show between busy days and nights of shopping, eating and merrymaking.
Of course, nobody wants to drag some reluctant relative to a holiday show that disappoints. So here are my 10 picks for seasonal fun and frolic, and even a few tears of emotion. Some of the shows are new; some are reprises. And I've tried to include at least a couple of titles for those who claim to despise the entire category of holiday shows. Not that I believe them.
Here's my holiday top-10 list, in no particular order.
"A Christmas Story: The Musical": This new musical based on the quirky movie celebrating Ralphie, one-legged lamps, Red Ryder BB guns and all of the other aspects of a Christmas in Northwest Indiana as remembered by Jean Shepherd, is the debuting marquee attraction in downtown Chicago this year. The show is produced by Peter Billingsley, who played Ralphie in the 1983 film; it rehearsed in Chicago earlier this fall and is aimed for Broadway next Christmas. Dec. 14-30 at the Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St.; $35-$79 at 800-745-3000 and ticketmaster.com
"Donny & Marie: Christmas in Chicago": If you miss the days of television Christmas specials — those faux-domestic celebrations where celebrity friends would just happen to drop by and sing a few songs around the Christmas tree — then this show likely will be your best choice. As Marie Osmond notes, the pair "grew up doing the Andy Williams Show" and hanging with celebrities. Expect to tour back through the Osmond past (which might well be your past) and hear material from their new albums, as well as to celebrate the season with an old-school, downtown variety show designed to have broad, family-friendly appeal. Dec. 6-24 at the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St.; $37-$100 at 800-775-2000 and broadwayinchicago.com
"A Christmas Carol": Larry Yando, a proven Scrooge with a deliciously snippy demeanor (pre-conversion, of course), has returned for the fourth time to the role of the crusty Dickensian miser. The Goodman's seasonal perennial — which doesn't change much — will be directed this year by Steve Scott. This is the 34th year of the Goodman "Carol" and some of us know every line by now of Tom Creamer's adaptation. There are, though, a few new actors frollicking around the set, including Nora Fiffer as Belle, Nathan Hosner as Jacob Marley; Elizabeth Ledo as the Ghost of Christmas Past; Ross Lehman as Mr. Fezziwig; and Jarrod Zimmerman as Young Scrooge. Through Dec. 31 in the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.; $25-$92 at 312-443-3800 and goodmantheatre.org
"White Christmas": Last year, a mediocre touring production of this 2004 musical, designed to capitalize on the popularity of the 1954 movie about a pair of song-and-dance men who head off to Vermont, played in downtown Chicago. We're happy to report that the new production at the Marriott Theatre is much, much better. The score features songs from the incomparable Irving Berlin catalog and the director Marc Robin makes excellent use of such genuine, moving Chicago actors as David Lively and Alene Robinson and skilled dancers Andy Lupp and Tammy Mader beautifully evoke the grace and style of the mid-20th century, when the snow always seemed a whole lot whiter. Through Jan. 1 at the Marriott Theatre, 10 Marriott Drive, Lincolnshire; $41-$49 at 847-634-0200 and marriotttheatre.com
"It's a Wonderful Life": Or "Lives." Once again, both American Theater Company and American Blues Theater are both staging radio-play versions of "It's a Wonderful Life," just a few blocks apart. It's not exactly a Capra-esque state of rapprochement, but I've found over the years that both of these shows are warm, entertaining and heartfelt. This year, I'll be reviewing the ATC version, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary. Directed by Jason W. Gerace, the cast includes Chris McLinden as George Bailey, Phillip Earl Johnson as Uncle Billy and others, Mary Winn Heider as Mary Hatch and, in a casting coup, no less than Mike Nussbaum as both Potter and Clarence.
The House Theatre’s “Nutracker” is not a ballet, but a warm and emotional original piece of Chicago theater where a quirky dude named Drosselmeyer teaches Clara and her grieving parents about the importance of moving on with life, and with Christmas. The show has a stronger emotional pull than most of the shows on this list and young children may find parts of it sad, but the piece ends up as a celebration of the power of a family to pull together. If you have out-of-towners here and want them to see what handmade Chicago theater is all about — and yet still have a traditional kind of seasonal experience that will draw everyone closer — then this is the show to chose.
Through Dec. 30 by House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division St.; $25 at 773-769-3832 and thehousetheatre.com