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Enter stage right: CL's theater holiday preview

Where fantasy usurps reality and relevance and rock 'n' roll rules over traditional musicals



That holly jolly season is back. You know: that pleasin' season when everything is rhyming and chiming, when the most improbable and far-fetched miracles can happen on TV and in the movies, and when everything your heart desires is happily offered to you — at temptingly steep discounts.

It's a different world out there as we tack from Turkey Day to the winter solstice. That's especially true in the Queen City's theater scene this year, where fantasy usurps reality and relevance, rock 'n' roll rules over traditional musicals, seriousness is on life support, and a most curious holiday nostalgia for radio lives on in epidemic proportions.

Supreme in silliness? Now there we have a truly tough call. Charlotte's two preeminent professional companies are both jingling this December. Adding to the merriment, both productions will be featuring a bizarre debut. Children's Theatre of Charlotte leads off with Junie B. in Jingle Bells, Batman Smells! (Dec. 2-22), with longtime music director Drina Keen making her acting debut on ImaginOn's big stage, the McColl Family Theatre. Actor's Theatre of Charlotte premieres Chaps! A Jingle Jangle Christmas (Dec. 13-23), with the normally thuggish Brett Gentile essaying his first role in a local musical.

Never fear, Keen and Gentile aren't in leading roles.

No, we have the more age-appropriate Caroline Rigby as Junie B. Jones, directed by Ron Chisholm, in his second go-round with the Barbara Park creation. He choreographed the initial invasion of Meanie Jim, Crybaby William, and That Grace when Junie B. Jones and A Little Monkey Business took over ImaginOn nearly five years ago. Junie B. was a kindergartner back then, greener in judgment. She's a full-fledged first-grader now, with a whole new set of friends and tormentors. Chief among her enemies is tattletale May.

Wouldn't you know it, Junie draws May's name for her Secret Santa gift-giving.

Chisholm's appreciation for Junie B. dates back to the days when his own daughter Caroline plowed through the series. Unlike Monkey Business, which boasted original songs, Jingle Bells is being augmented with "a few kid songs and holiday songs" for the season, according to Chisholm. That's where Keen figures in, meshing with the yarn's school sing-along as an onstage accompanist. The debut grew from there.

"I told her she only had to speak six lines on stage and play the role of Ms. Toot, the music teacher," Chisholm declares. "The role grew into her also playing Elf Ellen the PTO president in 'Ye Olde Gift Shop' at the school. I am sure I'll be paying dearly for putting her on stage for many years to come."

Rumors that Keen appears in a hooker's wig are being vehemently denied.

Following in the footsteps of The 1940s Radio Hour, writers Jahnna Beecham and Malcolm Hillgartner conceived Chaps! with a wacky country-western flair. When a group of buckaroo troubadours can't make their gig at a BBC studio, the tour manager ropes a posse of Brits — the station crew, the news announcer, and assorted friends — into masquerading as the Americans. Patrick Tansor, the Shakespearean powerhouse who first arrived on the local scene in 2008, directs the mayhem that ensues against the backdrop of 1944 London as World War II rages outside the studio.

The stiff-upper-lip recruits soldier on — through one showbiz disaster after another. Mistaken identity and inebriation dog their steps for starters as we watch things go horribly, hilariously wrong. Tansor catalogs some of the other crazy crises:

"Not enough actors for too many costume changes, interruptions of breaking news, power outages, crazy sound effects, lost pages in the script, a partridge in a pear tree ..."

The wild-eyed Ryan Stamey is predictably aboard for another zany Actor's Theatre musical, along with Joseph Klosek, hell-bent on redemption after being implicated in last December's Every Christmas Story Ever Told. Kevin Roberge and Beau Stroupe are new to the Stonewall Street stage, but they've established solid creds in recent years around town, with memorable performances this past summer in Ragtime and Hairspray. Anyone who saw Lauren Marlowe Segal's debut as Clio in Xanadu needs no further hype.

But Brett Gentile!?! Best remembered for his abstract impressionist teeth and his fearsome bellowing — as the torturer in The Lieutenant of Inishmore or the prince of comedy at the Pineville Dinner Theatre — Gentile surely must be out of his element in a country western musical.

Tansor staunchly defends the singer. "Beer and wine can be purchased at concessions at Actor's Theatre," he promises, "and earplugs will be provided free of charge."

Even with 1940s Radio Hour gone AWOL, there are two other voyages to Radioland available for Yuletide nostalgia nuts. Up in NoDa, CAST has already opened A Tuna Christmas (through Dec. 24) at their new 28th Street location for the first time, starring Paul Spadafora and Aven Stephenson as the Texas town. For the second year running, Blumenthal Performing Arts imports It's a Wonderful Life (Dec. 6-18) from Asheville to Booth Playhouse, with the entire studio audience joining the radio actors onstage. As long as Willie Repoley keeps coming back as George Bailey, this folksy production is well worth your while.

So what's the deal with all these radio-soaked scripts coming our way every year after Thanksgiving — is it just a cheap way to put up a show, or does the appeal run deeper?

"The idea of a comforting time in Americana where we all settled in to listen together is not lost on a theater audience," says Tansor. "Chaps! celebrates a peaceful time of the year in a time period that is war torn. Do we not find ourselves again in a time where we seek peace and understanding, during a time when so many American servicemen and women are so courageously doing their duty in the mountains of Afghanistan and the deserts of Iraq?"

After all the slapstick and the "Back in the Saddle" buckskin fare, Chaps! will finally veer toward a sentimental feeling of military solidarity with "The White Cliffs of Dover" and "I'll Be Home for Christmas." A similar cuddliness prevails at the end of our journeys to snowbound Bedford Falls and Tuna, Texas.

Hard-core drama and serious contemplation of the Nativity are rarer breeds during the holiday season, but Charlotte can boast one of each species. Based at Providence High, the precocious Chaos Theatre Ensemble continues to bring provocative drama "for youth, by youth" to Duke Energy Theatre during winter break. This year, it's Women and Wallace (Dec. 7-10), a serious comedy that chronicles -- through sometimes painful flashbacks -- the development of a unique 18-year-old who hurls a ripe tomato at a girl while crying out "I love you!"

Starving Artist Productions has grown fairly robust over the past five years, getting set to offer the sixth edition of The Birth: A Reflective Celebration of the Coming of Christ (Dec. 12-19). Featuring the musings of Frederick Buechner, the show moves into Duke Energy Theatre, where James K. Flynn will join the cast for the first time as narrator. The special celebration performance on Dec. 17 tacks on a concert by Sarah DeShields, who wrote two of the original songs in the show, including the marvelous "Mary." Even if mine eyes do occasionally roll at the excess baby worship, the warm glow of authentic reverence is unique in this homegrown adaptation by Nathan Rouse.

Theatre Charlotte's production of A Christmas Carol (Dec. 9-18) gets a makeover at the old Queens Road barn in its fifth consecutive year. Kevin Campbell as Ebenezer Scrooge and Alan England as Jacob Marley anchor the cast as usual, but Theatre Charlotte technical director Chris Timmons brings us a new set and lighting design, Jamey Varnadore lavishes 30 new costumes on the cast, and a new set of LED instruments, financed by an Arts & Science Council Power2Give initiative, fires up for the first time. Stuart Spencer, a former Fezziwig, directs.

The rock explosion has already begun, with The King and the Million Dollar Quartet holding court at Knight Theater (through Dec. 11) — boasting an Elvis, a Carl Perkins, and a Johnny Cash who are superior to those we saw on Broadway. Ol' Jerry Lee was pretty damn good, too, more than sufficiently thrilling my teeny-bopper wife Sue. The playlist is also better than the actual artifacts of the legendary Dec. 4, 1956, summit meeting, including "Hound Dog," "Blue Suede Shoes," "Folsom Prison Blues," "Fever," and a killer version of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On."

And what a wonderful place to hear that prime rock! So with a certain amount of trepidation, let's mention New Age superstar Jim Brickman, who also gets to take advantage of the fab Knight vibe in his one-afternoon run of A Christmas Celebration (Dec. 18). Saccharine attack warnings are in effect for that Sunday: After all, the noodling pianist recently devoted a full album to a Carpenters homage.

Then the answer to all your "Don't Stop Believing" arena-rock prayers — and the only theatrical answer to where you can take out-of-town guests between Christmas and New Year's — Rock of Ages (Dec. 26-31) hits Belk Theater with all its hyper-decibel force. Can you hear me? This pistol-packing papa is stacked with noise from Journey, Night Ranger, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Pat Benatar, Twisted Sister, Poison, Asia, and Whitesnake, ready to do fresh damage to the pitiful remnants of your eardrums.

Actually, there is a softer alternative, as The Velveteen Rabbit (Dec. 9-30) lingers on at Wells Fargo Playhouse, the smaller ImaginOn venue, until those uplifting days when we redeem our holiday gifts at local merchants for what we really want. Velveteen has earned the stature of a classic in repeated Children's Theatre adaptations of the beloved Margery Williams book, becoming a special province of the company's traveling troupers, the Tarradiddle Players. Amid the rabid commercialism of the season, the Rabbit's simple journey reminds us that the greatest gift of all is simply being here.