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DramaWatch: Shaking the holiday tree

Suddenly it's time for theatrical good cheer, from Tiny Tim to a Wonderful Life to a PDX musical – plus Corrib's foray into an intense virtual future.

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From left: John San Nicolas, Ashley Song, Jimmy Garcia, Treasure Lunan, and Jamie M. Rea in “It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play” at Portland Center Stage. Photo: Jingzi Zhao/courtesy of Portland Center Stage

On the thirty-first day before Christmas my true love said to me, “Let’s see a holiday show.” Funny she should mention that, because suddenly they’re popping out like partridges in a pear tree. Theatrical blends of tradition, nostalgia, updatings, and good cheer are ringing out like sleighbells in a winter snow.

It’s a wonderful life – and opening this weekend on the mainstage at Portland Center Stage, it’s It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play, a theatrical version of the holiday movie chestnut that returns not to the days of black-and-white cinema but to the soundstage of an imagined radio broadcast, where the audience gets to see all those airwave special effects put into action. The cast includes Portland favorites Merideth Kaye Clark, John San Nicolas, Treasure Lunan, Jimmy Garcia, Jamie M. Rea, and Ashley Song, and the play (a sort of play within a play) arrives with good notices from elsewhere: “This adaptation by Joe Landry is a lovable, evocative piece,” says The New York Times. Chin up, George Bailey. Mr. Potter cannot win. It’ll all turn out well in the end.

Portland Playhouse, meanwhile, reopens its perennially popular musical version of A Christmas Carol this weekend, blending Charles Dickens’ tale of ghosts and redemption with carols and other music that have kept audiences coming back for more over several holiday seasons. Old Scrooge learns his lesson to a toe-tapping beat, and the spirit of love and sharing, perhaps to no one’s surprise, prevails. God bless us everyone, says Tiny Tim.

Blythe Woodland takes a spin with Santa in “A Very Merry PDX-mas” at Broadway Rose. Photo: Craig Mitchelldyer

And in Tigard, the musical-theater specialists of Broadway Rose are breaking out A Very Merry PDX-mas, a new, light-hearted revue that combines holiday cheer with Portland-centric quirkiness. The show combines, in the company’s words, “classic carols, holiday pop songs, and original offbeat material created especially for Portland audiences,” and is conceived by Abe Reybold, with vocal arrangements by Reybold and Jay Tumminello. The cast includes Cara Arcuni, Michael Hammerstrom, William Shindler, Richie Stone, Malia Tippets, Tara Velarde, and Blythe Woodland.

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Other forms of theatrical nostalgia are in the late-autumn air, too. In Salem this weekend, the venerable Pentacle Theatre opens a fresh production of The Fantasticks, Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones’ 1960 musical that ran Off-Broadway for 42 years and 17,162 performances, making it the world’s longest-running musical. (It returned for another Off-Broadway run that lasted “only” from 2006 to 2017.)

There are many reasons for the show’s never-ending popularity, from its trick-the-kids-into-falling-in-love plot to its Shakespeare-mimicking Wall to its genuinely enjoyable score. Go ahead: Try to Remember what its most famous song is.

And in Newport on the central Oregon coast, the Porthole Players are hosting the touring improv players B.A.B.E. for a pair of shows Nov. 26-27 that appear to be all warm and celebratory for the whole darned form of musical theater. I Love Musicals is inspired by old I Love Lucy episodes and appears to blend holiday cheer with songs and a mystery plot featuring a couple of detectives called the Nancy Boys. Drew your own conclusions about that.

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Playwright Hannah Khalil, author of “Metaverse.” Photo: Richar Saker

So maybe holiday shows just aren’t your thing. If so, you have plenty of company. If you’re jingle-bell shy, or just want a break from the constant jangle-jangle, Corrib Theatre might have the show for you. Metaverse, by the playwright Hannah Khalil, opens this weekend at Portland’s Irish theater company, and its intentions are on other things: a future in which what is and isn’t real is a tense and crucial question.

“In the near future,” Corrib describes the show, “a tech developer has been tasked with replicating the sensation of human touch in Virtual Reality, which is also the only means by which she is able to communicate with her teenage daughter in an eerily restricted society. As the bureaucracy of her company becomes more opaque and genuine human contact more elusive, her paranoia mounts—or are her fears justified?”

Khalil carries a high-impact profile: She’s this year’s resident writer at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, and has had her plays produced at the Royal Shakespeare Company, the National Theatre of Scotland, Soho Theatre and elsewhere. She’s also written several radio plays and television episodes. Metaverse is an hour-long show with no intermission, and is being performed at 21ten Theatre, the former Shoebox Theatre space in Southeast Portland.

Looking ahead:

Did I mention nostalgia? Let me make clear, it’s not necessarily a dirty word. It can mean tradition, a touchstone, a wellspring, a respect for the past, a way to understand that the past was once the present, and that in a previous past, it was the future. It’s a way to understand that time bends, and that all times are both true and false, and that we necessarily view the past through the lens of where we are and how we think now; and that future people will view us in much the same way.

Among openings the first week of December are a couple of shows that aren’t holiday-themed but carry very different degrees of theatrical nostalgia:

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  • At Wit’s End, at Triangle Productions, brings back the American humorist Erma Bombeck, in the form of solo performer Helen Raptis. Bombeck, you may recall, had the audacity to ask her audience, “If life is a bowl of cherries, what am I doing in the pits?”
  • Fuse Theatre Ensemble is reviving Thornton Wilder’s 1938 classic Our Town, a play about life and death and the haunting spaces between that may well be the most-produced play in the nation, from high school stages to professional companies. But Fuse director Rusty Tennant and cast are approaching it from a fresh viewpoint – through a queer lens, “deconstructing nearly a century of heteronormativity ingrained into its provenance revealing its authentic, yet ephemeral, interior.”

Among other openings that weekend are several with holiday themes, including one of my favorite seasonal arrivals, PassinArt: A Theatre Company’s annual production of the Langston Hughes musical Black Nativity, a retelling of the gospel story from a Black perspective. Black Nativity has become a tradition in theaters across the nation, and in some cities is performed with a mass choir. PassinArt’s production is more intimate, with a few actor-singers and a few instrumental accompanists, telling the story in a manner that feels both full and almost person-to-person. It’ll be performed Dec. 1-4 only, in downtown’s small Brunish Theatre of Portland’5 Centers for the Arts.

Other holiday shows arriving the first week in December: It’s Christmas, Carol!, the Oregon Shakespeare festival’s annual romp in Ashland; Christmas Belles, at the Magenta Theatre in Vancouver, Wash.; and the quite delicious Liberace and Liza Holiday Show, in which David Saffert and Jillian Snow Harris entertainingly impersonate Mr. Liberace and Ms. Minnelli, Dec. 4 and 6 only in the Ellyn Bye Theatre at Portland Center Stage.

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Finally, on the holiday-show front, Portland Revels returns to live performances from its pandemic pause with a new show, Andalusian Night, playing Dec. 16-18 at the Newmark Theatre in downtown Portland, with a children’s revels, Brave Night, performing Dec. 29-30. Welcome back, all you Morris dancers, olde-instrumentalists, and audiences eager to join in the singing. As Tevye the Milkman so approvingly declared: “Tradition!”

Bob Hicks has been covering arts and culture in the Pacific Northwest since 1978, including 25 years at The Oregonian. Among his art books are Kazuyuki Ohtsu; James B. Thompson: Fragments in Time; and Beth Van Hoesen: Fauna and Flora. His work has appeared in American Theatre, Biblio, Professional Artist, Northwest Passage, Art Scatter, and elsewhere. He also writes the daily art-history series "Today I Am."

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