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The best holiday concerts, plays, and pantos Philly has to offer

Amid the madness of gift-buying, wrestling with tangled strings of lights, and frenzy wrapped in pretty paper and too many bows, there's a cornucopia of Christmas theater, music, and spectacles.

"A Christmas Carol"

This is the season for Charles Dickens' 1843 holiday classic, which teaches the valuable lessons that the downtrodden can never be truly discounted and our meanest impulses can be redeemed.

The Walnut Street Theatre for Kids' hour-long musical is perfect for the little ones, with morning shows (at 10:30 and 11 a.m.) at the landmark venue at 825 Walnut St. on a varied schedule to Dec. 23. Tickets are $14.50 to $16.50. Call 215-574-3550.

The venerable Hedgerow Theatre performs Jared Reed's adaptation expressly created for the troupe (with puppets) at the company's theater, 64 Rose Valley Rd., Rose Valley, on a varied schedule to Dec. 24. Tickets are $20 to $34. Call 610-565-4211.

New Jersey's McCarter Theatre Center presents its new, reimagined production, opening with a show at 7:30 p.m. next Friday at the Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, and continuing on a varied schedule to Dec. 31. Tickets are $25 to $85.50. Call 609-258-2787.

Handel's "Messiah"

Valentin Radu once again leads the Ama Deus Ensemble, playing original baroque instruments in the 1749 Covent Garden version of the work at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 22 E. Chestnut Hill Ave., at 7 p.m. Friday. Tickets are $30; $25 seniors; $10 students and ages under 12. Call 610-688-2800. (The program will be repeated at Daylesford Abbey, 220 S. Valley Rd., Paoli, at 4 p.m. Sunday; and at St. Katharine of Siena Church, 104 S. Aberdeen Ave., Wayne, at 4 p.m. Dec. 18. )

French conductor Nathalie Stutzmann leads the Philadelphia Orchestra in the wonderful oratorio, with soprano Ying Fang, mezzo-soprano Angela Brower, tenor Lawrence Wiliford, and baritone Stephen Powell as soloists, along with the Philadelphia Symphonic Choir, at the Kimmel Center's Verizon Hall, Broad and Spruce Streets, at 2 p.m. Dec. 18. Tickets are $40 to $125. Call 215-893-1999.

George Manahan conducts the New Jersey Symphony Chamber Orchestra in the work, at Princeton University's Richardson Auditorium, 68 Nassau St., at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 16. Tickets are $25 to $80. Call 609-258-2787.

"The Nutcracker"

The Pennsylvania Ballet presents George Balanchine's version of Tchaikovsky's beautiful dance at the Academy of Music, Broad and Locust Streets, opening with a performance at 7 p.m. Dec. 9 and running on a varied schedule to Dec. 31. Tickets are $35 to $125. Call 215-893-1999.

The Roxey Ballet performs a child-friendly version at the College of New Jersey, 2000 Pennington Rd., Ewing, N.J., at 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $21 to $52. Call 609-397-7616.

On stage

Starting with the idea that Christmas past was always snowy and the snow was better than any experienced as an adult, Dylan Thomas' A Child's Christmas in Wales is a merry monument to nostalgia, family, and holiday cheer. The Irish Repertory Theatre of New York performs the enduring prose work at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut St., and continues on a Tuesday-through-Sunday schedule to Dec. 23. Tickets are $35 to $40. Call 215-574-3550.

Mixing gospel, African music, and traditional carols, Black Nativity parallels the Christmas story with the current devastation in Darfur. The show goes on at 7 p.m. Friday at the Freedom Theatre, 1346 N. Broad St., and continues on a varied schedule to Dec. 18. Tickets are $35; $20 seniors and students. Call 888-802-8998.

Dropping panto

People's Light rocks the holiday panto with Pete Pryor and Samantha Reading's Sleeping Beauty, featuring music by Alex Bechtel. It's the timeless tale of a suburban kingdom (Paoli Shoals) where a monarch has banned record players, just ruining his daughter's Sweet 16. Panto is the British theater tradition,  fracturing fairy tales with topical jokes, audience participation, a "messy bit," and general silliness. The show goes on at 2 and 7 p.m. Saturday at People's Light, 39 Conestoga Rd., Malvern, and continues on a varied schedule to Jan. 15. Tickets are $41 to $89. Call 610-644-3500.

Holiday hipness

The pop-music potpourri known as the Q102 Jingle Ball Tour is an annual tradition. What's in the mix this year? Why, it's the divine Ellie Goulding, plus Shawn Mendes, Fifth Harmony, Diplo, Charlie Puth, Tove Lo, and more.  The tour rolls in at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 7 at the Wells Fargo Center, 3601 S. Broad St. Tickets are $40.50 to $176. Call 800-653-8000.

Out of this world

As always at this time of year, our thoughts turn to  ...  William Shatner. Yes, combining the two most beloved franchises in the universe -- Star Trek and Santa -- the tribute band the Roddenberries presents a Trekkified, multi-media, sci-fi rock cabaret at 7:30 p.m. Dec. 11 at the Ardmore Music Hall, 23 E. Lancaster Ave., Ardmore. Tickets are $12. Call 610-649-8389.