So many of the stories we enjoy around the holidays are preoccupied with loneliness, often reminding us love, religion and the spirit of giving all have the power to transform a cold wintry house into a warm, friendly home. Look across the theater landscape for December in the Charlotte metro area and you'll find multiple instances of merry reformations and restorations.
Two of them are at ImaginOn, where Children's Theatre is reprising one of the most familiar Christmas musicals, Scrooge! (Dec. 5-22), for the third time in the past 12 years. The weekend after that Dickensian extravaganza opens, starring Steven Ivey at the McColl Family Theatre, a world premiere production of The Story of the Little Gentleman (Dec. 13-28) overlaps at the other end of the 7th Street fantasy palace in the Wells Fargo Playhouse.
In an ImaginOn season that is raining cats and dogs, with 101 Dalmatians and The Lion and the Little Red Bird already in the rearview mirror and The Cat in the Hat oncoming in April, score one for the pooches in Little Gentleman. Longtime Charlotte fave Hank West, after belatedly catching on at Children's Theatre in Balloonacy last fall, returns in the title role.
When he's down and troubled — and he needs a helping paw — Amy Arpan will make her entrance as the tail-wagger who lifts his spirits. She's performed with Children's Theatre before, her pedigree stretching back to The Littlest Angel in 1999 and Bunnicula the following year, but most of her roles in recent years have been in Shakespearean dramas.
Going from iambic pentameters to a non-human, non-verbal role will be quite different for Arpan. "Another departure here," she says, "is that it's the first time I've performed to a score being played by musicians onstage as I am acting it."
Adapted for the stage by Swedish actors Tomas von Bromssen and Lars-Erik Brossner, the original book was created by the prolific children's author Barbro Lindgren and her frequent illustrator, Eva Eriksson, in 1979.
"When we first meet the Little Gentleman, we watch his daily routine of reaching out, rejection by others and despair at the day's end," says Arpan. "He decides to reach out one last time and a new friend — a dog — arrives. Her hopefulness and unconditional acceptance help him to bridge the gap between himself and the world to find happiness again."
Friendship between man and dog takes four full seasons, but you can bet the last of them brings the onset of winter and the consolations of Christmas. It's a bit personal for Arpan. "Christmas was my father's favorite holiday," she recalls, "so it is sometimes bittersweet for me to decorate a tree or see dads taking their daughters to see Santa. But I also know he'd say that life goes on and wouldn't want me to be sad; you can choose to find happiness. In our story, we get to see the Little Gentleman rediscover the joy in life when it seems all hope is lost."
Honorably discharged from his vaudevillian stint as Cruella de Ville's henchman in Dalmatians, Mark Sutton will direct Little Gentleman. Ron Chisholm, who choreographed Sutton's vaudeville shtick in Dalmatians, will direct and choreograph Scrooge! Meanwhile, if you crave your Dickens served straight up, with "I Hate Christmas" unsung, there's A Christmas Carol (Dec. 5-14) just for you at Theatre Charlotte for its eighth consecutive year, with Vito Abate directing and Christian Casper taking over the role of Ebenezer.
Up at Armour Street Theatre, the Davidson Community Players are reprising a uniquely retro version of It's a Wonderful Life (Dec. 4-21), setting it in old-timey radio studio with commercial breaks, corny jingles, transparent multi-casting and double helpings of sound effects. While the story of George Bailey's rebirth goes out over the airwaves, you can bet sparks will fly — romantic and otherwise — between the studio actors.
Looking for a more down-home take on the season? On Q Productions continues its vibrant rejuvenation with A Soulful Noel (Dec. 18-19) at McGlohon Theatre, arguably the most atmospheric concert hall in town. "The Little Drummer Boy" and "Go Tell It on the Mountain" are among the transfigured tunes.
There's also a place for tomfoolery in Christmas shows, so long as it isn't 100 percent pure tomfoolery and allows some saccharine seep through. If you haven't seen this theorem proven before, Appalachian Creative Theatre demonstrates it anew in reviving David Sedaris' Santaland Diaries (Dec. 12-14) at UpStage in NoDa. App Creative's artistic director, Justin Attkisson, plays the snarky Crumpet, reporting from the belly of the beast as he toils away at Macy's as one of Santa's elves during the hectic holiday season.
Mostly, Crumpet delights in debunking the magic, but there's one delicious taste of the old eggnog toward the end of his otherwise jaded chronicles.
The original Great American Trailer Park Musical was such a humongous hit at Actor's Theatre in 2007 that they brought it back again in 2010. So I'm counting my blessings that I can review the trashy, demented residents of Armadillo Acres in something different, namely The Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical, which previewed last week, opens this Wednesday, and rides its wave of tackiness through Dec. 28.
It would be cruel to suggest that folks who live in trailer parks are more homeless than Scrooge or the Little Gentleman ever could be — or that a songlist that includes "My Christmas Tin Toy Boy" can't rightly be called a musical, let alone great. That's why I mention it.
If you were hoping to find theater events between Thanksgiving and Christmas that aren't suffused with the holiday spirit, Charlotte 2014 isn't for you — though we're confident that the Merry Stripmas Burlesque Show (Dec. 20) at UpStage pushes the envelope past the breaking point. Thank you, Big Mammas House of Burlesque.
Otherwise, Stephen Seay Productions is champing at the bit, promising to return us to blissful secularism in the blink of an eye on the day after Christmas. Completely Hollywood (abridged) at Upstage (Dec. 26-Jan. 4) will be in the spirit of Seay's previous Reduced desecrations of Shakespeare, the Bible, the great books, and American history. No fewer than 186 movies will be pulverized at warp speed by six actors into two madcap hours.