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Letter from Seattle: Back in the swing

From the nouveau-cirque of Teatro ZinZanni to Jane Austen, Mr. Dickens, and some holiday noir, the city's theater scene is flying high again.

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Complete cast of Teatro ZinZanni’s “Coming Home,” the Seattle nouveau-cirque dinner theater company’s return to the stage after a long Covid layoff. Photo: Filling The Frame

Seattle theaters are back in full swing this fall, and audiences are gradually returning to the fold.

 But the most startling theatrical news came out of the blue last month, when the city’s largest, longest-running resident theater announced a surprising change at the top.

Braden Abraham, who has served as the well-regarded and productive artistic director of the Tony Award-honored Seattle Repertory Theatre (now known as Seattle Rep) for the past eight years, will leave the company in January to take the helm of the Writers Theatre in Glencoe, Illinois, near Chicago. It is a big move for Abraham, who wants to concentrate more on developing new work in a smaller but highly regarded venue. And it’s a major transition for the Seattle company, where the 46-year-old director-producer has spent virtually his entire professional career.

More about Abraham in a bit. But first, Seattle’s theater scene has always been packed with holiday fare each winter – and it extends far beyond ACT Theatre’s annual presentation of A Christmas Carol. (And the evergreen The Nutcracker performed by Pacific Northwest Ballet.) This year is especially crucial in rebuilding an audience (and plumping up revenues) after the long pandemic pause. Here are a few of the other celebratory options slated for local stages:

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Teatro ZinZanni. This nouvelle cirque dinner theater, which unfolds in an antique cabaret tent, has returned after a lengthy pandemic absence. A brainchild of local producer Norm Langill, the show offers a meal, immersive acts (comedy, acrobatic, musical), and an attractive aura of ooh-la-la that has beguiled tourists and locals in Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago versions.

 ZinZanni returns to home turf this month with some of its favorite performers — comedian Kevin Kent, Elena Gatilova (aerialist), Vita Radionova, Rizo (singer), Domitil Aillot (Chinese pole), Manuela Horn (yodeling Dominatrix), Duo Madrona (trapeze), Michael Evolution (basketball freestyle juggler) – to a new venue in the SODO district, Herban Feast. The price tag has remained remarkably stable (starting at $135 for meal and show, sans tips and drinks). We’ll see whether there’s still an appetite for a little glam, at a time when Amazon and Microsoft are laying off some of its highest paid workers. (Nov. 16-Feb. 19)

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Rickey Spaulding and Katheryn Bogley in “The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley” at Taproot Theatre in Seattle. Photo: Robert Wade

For Austen Fans. Two shows tap into Seattle’s ongoing passion for Jane Austen’s beloved oeuvre. Taproot Theatre offers San Francisco playwright Lauren Gunderson’s The Wickhams: Christmas at Pemberley, a kind of Yuletide sequel of Pride and Prejudice that imagines a family gathering hosted by Elizabeth Bennet and hubby Mr. Darcy, but dominated by the marital scandal swirling around Lizzie’s boisterous sister Lydia and her caddish hubby Wickham. (Nov. 23-Dec. 30)

Then there’s Austen Unbound, which takes a different tack. Book-It Repertory Theatre’s new effort gathers a group of practiced improvisers to riff off the collected works of Jane A. They’ll aim to provide “a little romance, a little fantasy” (and hopefully some Austenian wit) in the darkest days of the year, when Seattle skies darken at 5 p.m. (Nov. 30-Dec. 18.)

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“Die Hard”/Noir. Seattle Public Theatre encores a couple of favorite spoofy holiday sprees in rep: The Habit’s A Very Die Hard Christmas, which meshes action-flick tropes with toe-tapping tunes; and Christmastown: A Holiday Noir, Wayne Rawley’s enjoyably convoluted parody of hard-boiled detective films with a twisty plot featuring Santa, reindeer and (of course) a femme fatale. (“Die Hard” Nov. 25-Dec. 20; “Christmastown” Dec. 2-24)

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Adéa Michelle Sessoms and Jennifer Wolfe in the North American tour of “Moulin Rouge! The Musical.” Photo: Matthew Murphy for MurphyMade

Moulin Rouge! The Musical:  It’s not strictly holiday fare, but it’s a swell holiday gift anyway:  tickets to see the touring version of this whiz-bang, multiple Tony Award-winning Broadway version of Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 movie extravaganza set in the famous/infamous windmill-shaped nightclub in Old Paree. The cheesy romantic plot is the same, the dancing and production values are magnifique, and the score is a somewhat updated jukebox of well-chosen  pop hits. A splurge, but worth it. And after the show closes in Seattle, it moves to the Keller Auditorium in Portland to spread more razzle-dazzle. (Dec. 14-Jan. 1 at the Paramount in Seattle; Jan. 4-15, 2023 in Portland)

Sponsor
Chamber Music Northwest Lincoln Recital Hall Portland State University Portland Oregon

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Adam Standley, Ryan Vincent Anderson, and Miguel Castellano in rehearsal for “Mr. Dickens and His Carol” at Seattle Rep. Photo: Sayed Alamy

Mr. Dickens and His Carol. Braden Abraham’s final show as artistic director of Seattle Rep is this world-premiere adaptation of Samantha Silva’s well-received novel of the same title. It offers a fictionalized version of the creation story of A Christmas Carol, the Charles Dickens novella of holiday humbug and redemption that has been a staple of the American (though, interestingly, not British) stages for many a decade.

With a script developed by Abraham and Silva, this is that rare thing of late: a big blow-out local production with a large cast and elaborate settings – as well as a family-friendly plot. (Nov. 25-Dec. 23)

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Braden Abraham (left), director of “Mr. Dickens and His Carol” and departing Seattle Rep artistic director, in rehearsal with actor Adam Standley. Photo: Sayed Alamy

Which brings us back to Abraham. He rose up the ranks at the Rep, starting as an intern in his 20s, and eventually serving as associate artistic director. When esteemed artistic head Jerry Manning died suddenly in 2014, Abraham stepped into the post and despite his relative youth proved up to the job of running a company with a $10 million-plus budget and a national reputation. Mentored by Manning, previous artistic director David Esbjornson, and longtime managing director Ben Moore, he brought both a sense of continuity and stability, and a shot of youthful vigor to the playhouse.

Abraham directed strong revivals of modern classic plays by Edward Albee, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, but made his mark in bolder strokes with new work — partnering with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival to develop Robert Schenkkan’s two dramas about the presidency of Lyndon Johnson, the Tony Award-winning All the Way, and The Great Society; and with La Jolla Playhouse on the hit Broadway musical Come From Away.

He also ran a New Plays division of in-house development at the Rep, and in 2017 launched a popular Public Works program of free musicals involving community groups from around the region, modeled after an annual series created by New York Public Theatre.

According to theater insiders, Rep general manager Jeffrey Herrmann has no immediate plans to leave the theater, and Abraham is choosing the slate of shows for the 2023-24 season. The company’s board of directors will take their time doing a national search for a new artistic honcho. And with no one in-house candidate likely to assume the role, the next chapter for the Rep could be very different.

Stay tuned.

Misha Berson, Seattle-based writer and teacher, was the head theater critic for The Seattle Times from 1991-2016. She is the former theater critic for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and has contributed to American Theatre, Los Angeles Times, Oregon ArtsWatch, Crosscut.com and Salon.com, among other outlets. She is the author of three books, including Something’s Coming, Something Good: West Side Story and the American Imagination (Applause/Hal Leonard Books). She was chair of the jury for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, and has been a Pulitzer drama juror three additional times. She has taught at several universities, including Seattle University and University of Washington.

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