Holiday time at the theater: Bring on those stage versions of A Christmas Carol and we'll all visit with Charles Dickens' characters once again. "Bah! Humbug!" said a few artistic directors who've decided otherwise.
As a result, the region's professional stages have sparkled this year with original holiday productions - five premieres, all created here. Of them, three continue to run.
Sure, you can still find the standbys, or incarnations of them, on professional stages. These include A Christmas Carol (Hedgerow Theatre, near Media) and Jared Reed's one-man A Dickens Christmas (also Hedgerow). And although Treasure Island is hardly a holiday show, the version of it at People's Light and Theatre in Malvern is the company's panto, an oddball form of theater reserved for Christmastime.
But this year's productions have included more than the usual number of holiday-themed shows never seen before, anywhere. This was not planned or coordinated; it happened because artistic directors decided on their own to create something new or - in the case of a Hannukah show and a bilingual show - something that would fill a perceived void.
Wednesday night, Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins became the last of the five new shows to open, staged by the small professional company Gas & Electric Arts at the Painted Bride in Center City.
Eric Kimmel's much-loved Hanukkah story about a man who tries to win over goblins bent on ruining the holiday has been adapted for the stage before, but this is a wholly new version, created by the company's ensemble with puppetry, a klezmer quartet, original songs, and lots of physical theater. The show previewed Tuesday, the first night of the eight-day Jewish holiday.
"I identified a dearth of diverse cultural programming during the winter holidays," says Lisa Jo Epstein, Gas & Electric's artistic director, who is staging the new show. She says Hershel - a production that companies in other cities have already approached her about - "puts Hanukkah at the center of the piece but also reflects the universal themes of the holidays. It's a story that reminds us of the power of community and involves facing our inner and outer goblins, if you will."
Epstein says the current premieres are "a wonderful opportunity for Philadelphia audiences to have this rash of new works for the holidays that offer different perceptions and new experiences."
For Norristown's Theatre Horizon, which is using its original show, Voices of Christmas, to announce that it's building a new theater inside the former Bell Telephone building a few blocks from the Centre Theater where it now produces, a Christmas show is nothing new.
Because Theatre Horizon rents from Centre Theater, a producer that runs its own theater and houses Iron Age Theatre in its DeKalb Street space, Horizon is locked into rental slots - and one of them is the holiday season. So for the past several years, the company has been creating a new holiday show yearly, a process that may end after it moves into its own space next fall.
Voices of Christmas came about when Horizon co-artistic director Matt Decker decided to explore the Internet to find stories about the gamut of emotions Christmas elicits. He found plenty.
"What's out there in the world at this time of year is goodwill and happiness and joy - and people's emotions are also raw. There are traditions that have to be upheld, you have to find the right gifts, there are lots of emotions and not all of them are positive."
His production, which opened Friday, has a three-piece band and a living-room feel, as he described it during rehearsals. "We talk directly to the audience all the time."
The stories include one from a London blogger, a piece by humorist Dave Barry and another by Cincinnati rabbi Robert Barr - a Christmas Eve sermon he delivered at a local Unitarian Church. Actors perform the stories interspersed with songs by John Lennon, Joni Mitchell, the Mamas and the Papas, and others.
In the city's Fishtown section, the professional Walking Fish Theatre is staging a bilingual piece for families called Un Viaje: A Christmas Journey, which opened two weeks ago. It's about a woman who's grown apart from her cultural roots, and brings her children to Latin America to spend Christmas with their grandmother there. Written by the company's artistic director, Michelle Pauls, and actors victor Rodriguez and Anjoli Santiago, it offers the audience sing-along opportunities and kids the option of dancing onstage with the cast.
The most high-concept new Christmas show was at Delaware Theatre Company in Wilmington, where A Cappella Humana, by theater artist Kevin Ramsey and his niece, Pearl Ramsey, told of the Nativity, and the story beyond it, in the form of a reality TV show. The show, which ended its run last weekend, was laden with traditional, spiritual, and gospel numbers.
The other show already through its run is Flashpoint Theatre Company's loony Chlamydia for Christmas and Herpes for Hanukkah: More Sex-Ed Burlesque for the Holidays. The invention of two of the company's cofounders, Meghann Williams and Gigi Naglak, it consisted of a series of risque-to-raunchy skits centered on the two holidays. It played until last weekend at the Adrienne Theatre - in repertory with David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries, a standby Flashpoint produces annually. A reliable oldie mixed with a bizarre original makes for a producer's proven box-office ploy: hedging the bets.
New Holiday Shows
These three original shows, all premieres, continue to run.
Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins at the Painted Bride, 230 Vine St., through Dec. 31. Tickets: $16-$25. 215-925-9914 or www.gasandelectricarts.org.
Voices of Christmas at Centre Theatre, 208 DeKalb St., Norristown, through Dec. 31. Tickets: $29; $39 New Year's Eve, with party. 610-283-2230 or www.theatrehorizon.org.
Un Viaje: A Christmas Journey at Walking Fish Theatre, 2509 Frankford Ave., through Dec. 30. Tickets: $6-$12. 215-427-9255 or www.walkingfishtheatre.com.