Off-kilter holiday shows share stage with tradition

  • Article by: KRISTIN TILLOTSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 16, 2013 - 11:16 PM
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An unlikely holiday pairing: Matt Erkel of the Brave New Workshop and Zoé Henrot, left, and Shannon Corbett, of the Saint Paul City Ballet.

Photo: Jeff Wheeler, Star Tribune

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The seasonal proliferation of holiday shows defies logic.

For most people it’s the busiest, most stressful period of the year, hardly a time to pack more events onto the calendar. Yet every Christmas season seems to inspire more holiday-themed productions, from huge and glitzy like Donny and Marie’s Broadway extravaganza at Target Center to small and quirky like comedian Mary Mack at the Cedar.

Would the Grinch win if the Guthrie stopped putting on “A Christmas Carol,” or if we no longer had umpteen “Nutcrackers” to choose from? Yes, if the strong attendance records at these shows year in, year out are an indication. Rather than roasting these chestnuts on an open pyre, we return, again and again, with multiple generations of kin in tow. And there always seems to be room for new options on the crowded calendar to develop a loyal following, as ticket sales for shows like Miss Richfield’s annual sassfest can attest.

Tom Hoch, CEO of Hennepin Theatre Trust, has cause to contemplate the appeal of holiday shows, as the Trust’s four theaters in downtown Minneapolis are putting on seven of them this year. He sees three factors that fuel the yuletide-performance fire.

For one thing, he said, “it’s a time when people want to get together with family and friends more often, and making plans to see a show is a good way to do it.” (Translation: If you already have pricey tickets, it’s harder to bag plans at the last minute even if you’re exhausted from forced-march shopping.)

Giving the gift of entertainment “is also a way to do something nice for somebody during the holidays — and the giver gets to enjoy it, too.”

But the strongest pull is simply a desire for tradition. Just like doing the tree the same way every year and unwrapping gifts at the same time, he said, many people want custom to guide their choices.

“You don’t want a new recipe for rice pudding,” Hoch said. “You crave the taste of the one you always have.”

But younger shows like the New Standards holiday concert — which has graduated in its seventh year to two nights in a bigger venue, the 2,181-seat State Theatre — also attract big audiences. And the Minnesota-centric crowd-pleaser spoof “A Don’t Hug Me Christmas Carol,” packing ’em in since 2007, has 37 performances at the New Century Theatre.

Set in a small Scandinavian town in northern Minnesota, the musical continues to sell out because the characters, setting and story — a spoof on the Dickens tale — are so familiar, said creator Phil Olson.
“I grew up in a very emotionally reserved household,” Olson said. “My dad would say he was the Norwegian who loved his wife so much he almost told her. In Minnesota, either you are that guy or you know someone like him.”

Comedian Mary Mack, well-versed in Scandinavian behavior herself, said she’s looking forward to her show at the Cedar because “it’s a Christmas present to myself. You feel it in the audience — everyone needs to blow off steam because they have to spend time with their families. I might have a profanity choir at the end. We need to swear a little, which will be OK because I don’t invite my relatives, who always tell me I do the Christmas taco plate wrong, because I pour the sauce over the five layers of cheese instead of mixing it in.”

A few holiday shows keep right on going, even after New Year’s Eve has come and gone. Brave New Workshop’s “I Saw Daddy Marry Santa Claus,” is running through Feb. 1.

“We used to close right after New Year’s Eve, but we kept extending it a week, and then another,” said associate artistic director Katy McEwen. “We found that some people actually like to come to a holiday show after the holiday is over to unwind, decompress, sort of make fun of all the craziness after it’s done. We actually get companies who book their holiday parties in January, in advance.”

As for market saturation, holiday shows have apparently not yet come close. The Guthrie has been putting on “A Christmas Carol” for 40 years, yet “year over year, we have found that consistently 50 percent of audience members have never attended any productions at the Guthrie,” said Trish Santini, the theater’s director of external relations.
 

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