Holiday Spectacles

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This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.

The Christmas pageant is a staple of the American holiday season, but these recreations of the nativity date back to medieval times when mystery plays were staged with elaborate, outdoor productions that often took days or weeks to perform. Watching some of today's pageants can often feel as if days and weeks are passing; but nonetheless, in communities around this country, these pageants are perhaps the number one form of holiday entertainment.

Battling it out for the runner-up to the Christmas pageant in terms of theatrical holiday omnipresence are two more recent forms of spectacle, two relics from the 19th century: The Nutcracker and A Christmas Carol.

A Christmas Carol was, of course, first a short story by Dickens, published in the winter of 1843-but less than two months later, numerous adaptations of it began appearing on London stages.

Little seems to have changed in a hundred and sixty years, as this December, Southern Californians could choose between at least five different staged versions of A Christmas Carol, some traditional (like South Coast Rep's production) or some with new touches like having only nine actors play the roles (Long Beach Shakespeare's production) or telling the story around a migrant farm worker camp (Road Theatre Company's production).

Not to be outdone, The Nutcracker boasted at least six major productions here in Los Angeles-with countless other local versions performed by princes and princesses of all ages.

The most prominent production of the Nutcracker though has to be the version staged by British choreographer Matthew Bourne-the man who brought the world (and L.A.) the all-male Swan Lake and the update of Carmen, called The Car Man.

Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! frames the action as a sort of Dickensian fable, rather than a germanic fairy tale. Bourne also makes his Nutcracker! less a ballet, and more a work of musical theater (albeit without singing) The result of his tinkering though, is that the work feels like a conventional Broadway (or even Vegas) contraption. It moves fast, looks good, and provides a modicum of entertainment-but what it lacks is any sense of innocence or magic.

Luckily, living in Los Angeles means a much wider spectrum of holiday fare beyond just Carols and 'Crackers-and this December did not disappoint. First, there was Arlo Guthrie and the Klezmatics, presenting a Hanukkah concert at Disney Hall. Then there was the held-over production of A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, and even a David Mamet-inspired take on Dickens called An [expletive] Christmas Carol.

But, the real treat of this season was the next installment of what is turning out to be a true local Christmas tradition: The Evidence Room's annual &quot99-Cent; Only Store song and dance extravaganza."

The success of last year's Splendor: A 99-cent Only Store's Wonderama guaranteed that writer/director Ken Roht would return this year with the third edition of this series, entitled Peace Squad Goes 99: The Greatest 99-Cent Only Story Ever Told...Ever! .

As the title (complete with exclamation point) suggests, these &quot99-cent; Only Store shows" are heavy on camp-but they're also heavy on production design, providing even more eye-popping spectacle than Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! Most importantly though, Ken Roht's christmas confections are filled with a genuine sense of theatrical wonder.

&quotThe; 99-cent only store" show has closed, but for those still craving holiday theater, still playing are a collection of Christmas comedies entitled Christmas Time is Queer 3: Naked Christmas still running at the Celebration Theater and the aforementioned Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker! at Royce Hall-both of which conclude their runs this weekend.

This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.