IT'S FOUR days until Hanukkah and almost two weeks to Christmas, but a pair of local theater companies have already unwrapped their presents to us.
Though profoundly dissimilar, Media Theatre's rendition of "Les Miserables" and 1812 Production's latest installment of "This Is the Week That Is," share a crucial trait: Both are top-shelf efforts that speak to the immense professionalism and talent in our regional theater landscape.
Tickets to either (or both) definitely qualify as can't-miss gifts for theater-lovers on your list.
A whiz of a 'Les Miz'
This production is perfect for "Les Miserables" fans like me who haven't gotten rid of the sour taste left by the substandard vocalizing in the 2012 film version of the iconic "sung-through" musical.
While none of the cast members soar to heights achieved in some past productions, the singing throughout is a joy - especially the rousing ensemble numbers ("At the End of the Day," "Master of the House," "One Day More") that are the best parts of the majestic, soul-stirring score by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Herbert Kretzmer (who adapted the original French lyrics).
Any staging of "Les Miz" pretty much rises or falls on the actor portraying Jean Valjean, the parole-breaking ex-con whose life is a testament to piety and spiritual redemption. John D. Smitherman ably fills Valjean's large shoes vocally and dramatically.
Going toe-to-toe (and vocal-to-vocal) with Smitherman is James Zannelli as the monomaniacal Inspector Javert. Zannelli's throaty baritone is a fine instrument, and he convincingly conveys his character's obsessive fealty to the rule of law.
The rest of the troupe is uniformly excellent, with Elisa Matthews (as doomed single mom, Fantine) and Kelly Briggs (as the comically criminal Thenardier) especially praiseworthy. Matthews brings plenty of pathos and a wonderfully dramatic vocal style to her role, while Briggs perfectly embodies buffoonish malevolence in his.
For "Les Miz" vets, the most striking aspect of this production - mounted through Jan. 18 in the wonderful Media Theatre, a classic early-20th-century venue - will likely be the play's bare-bones staging, a three-piece stairs-and-platform rig and video projections.
Despite the absence of the barricade, turntable and other "Les Miz" technical totems, director Jesse Cline and his minions have made this "Miserables" one of the best ever presented locally.
Media Theatre, 104 E. State St., Media, show times vary, $42 (discounts available), 610-891-0100, mediatheatre.org.
'This' is funny
In my next life, I want to be as smart as the folks at 1812 Productions. The nation's only comedy-exclusive theater company is back with another "This Is the Week That Is." The latest edition, which runs through Dec. 31, is a typically terrible and swift sword slicing and dicing the follies and foibles of contemporary American culture, delivering bucketfuls of laughs in the process.
The chuckles, giggles and guffaws commence with the opening sequence, a hilarious poke at the media-propelled Ebola hysteria that has infected far more Americans than the actual disease ever will. From there, the sextet of merry gagsters - Don Montrey, Dave Jadico, Aime Donna Kelly, Susie Stevens, Tabitha Allen and Dave Jadico - slashes and burns its way through au courant subjects, from Supreme Court decisions to the 76ers' ongoing woes.
Throughout, the six performer-writers display an intelligence and cleverness often lacking in far more popular sketch-comedy efforts. (Did someone say, "Saturday Night Live"?)
While there are plenty of sharp, one-off jokes ("Bill Cosby resigned from the board of Temple. Who knew he was Jewish?"), it's the extended sketches that really show off the troupe's talents.
One is a hilarious takedown of the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that determined corporations are people (the cast members portray human versions of large companies like Facebook and British Petroleum). But the best bit of all is a "Mad Men" satire that is breathtaking in its wit (it is even funnier if you are familiar with the "Carousel" episode from the first season) and depth.
The players nail the show's characters (the cerebral Don Draper, horndog Roger Sterling and pulchritudinous Joan Harris), but there are multiple layers that also skew Madison Avenue and our government's penchant for "1984"-style public relations.
Not that everything the gang swings at is a home run. Things tend to get a tad preachy when gender issues are the subject, and a segment that involves a random audience member being chosen to run in next year's mayoral election isn't as funny as it should be.
But these are minor bumps on a wonderfully entertaining road. That some material is changed for every show to keep it up-to-date makes "This Is the Week That Is" that much more impressive.
Plays and Players, 1714 Delancey Place, show times vary, $34-$40, 215-592-9560, 1812productions.org.
The show goes on
Although it has new ownership, a new chef and a new name, Cibo Ristorante Italiano, (formerly the Walnut Street Supper Club), continues its predecessor's policy of having its staffers double as performers.
As such, the Italian eatery at 1227 Walnut St. remains the place where aspiring performers (many from the University of the Arts and other local colleges) serve not only dinner, but show tunes and selections from the Great American Song Book.
The shows begin at 6 p.m. daily. For more info, go to cibophiladelphia.com.