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Byron Woods 

Good seasonings

Memo to the other papers: What if those holiday shows were actually pretty good? If, in short, there were no reason not to review them? Permit me to sound the critical "all-clear." As thousands of your readers already know by now, yes, it's actually safe to go back and see Cinderella and The Nutcracker. Why it's even safe to see A Christmas Carol. In fact, I'd recommend it.

Clearly I'd been away too long: A Christmas Carol has lost most of the unsightly pounds that made it "two strong hours of singing, dancing, magic tricks, vintage jokes and broad, slapstick humor--in a show that, unfortunately, runs three hours long" as I wrote when I reviewed it in 1997 for Citysearch.com. Now trimmed to a comparatively svelte 21/2 hours, Carol's wit and timing has improved substantially. Its big, Broadway-esque song and dance numbers have clearly seen an upgrade, thanks in part to Matthew-Jason Willis' choreography and Diane Petteway's short-order hot stage band, which serves up ballads like Once Upon a Dream, comic tangos like Humbug to Me and a Blue Christmas a la Little Feat.

No, it still won't please the purists. The world remains Scrooge's straight man in nearly every scene he's in--giving him the opportunity to crack wise on Geico commercials, local college sports fans (what, no Duke?), Clay Aikens', Queer Eye and other mass culture atrocities. But director Ira David Wood III shares the stage this time with his ensemble, to good effect: The richer their world is, the richer is his as well.

The show takes the greatest liberties with the Ghost of Christmas Future. Puppeteer Mike Raab's a standout as both a seedy undertaker and his professional associate, a buzzard named Claykins, while co-conspirator David Henderson brings a Scottish brogue to Jacob Marley. Taylor Fleming's voice--and her direct questions about the worth of the past--unnerve both Scrooge and us, as the Ghost of Christmas Past, while John Shearer brings an Isaac Hayes R&B bass to Christmas Present. Scotty Cherryholmes ushers us in and out with grace as the Lamplighter.

There's probably still one or two song cues too many, and in places Wood's lyrics still tend to underline the morals of the story. Bob Moore arguably casts too faint a shadow at present as Bob Cratchit, and a number of jokes are real groaners.

But this Carol is unarguably a big stage musical--and a successful one at that. And we must observe that Wood's role at the center of it all is now a comic bounty--almost enough to make us regret that Christmas comes but once a year. Recommended.

Two major last-minute cast substitutions for Raleigh Little Theater's Cinderella had Jo Brown taking the Fairy Godmother's role and Rebecca Johnston filling in as the Wicked Stepmother at the 20th Anniversary gala performance last Friday at Fletcher Opera House.

Not that you could tell it from the audience: The two veterans stepped into their respective roles with assurance, as if they'd been doing them all their lives.

The hyperbolic humor of the RLT production is reflected in Vicki Olson and John Franklin's outlandish costumes and the show's broad takes on villains. Compared to Tim Cherry's dark little Henrietta and M. Dennis Poole's fatuous Gertrude, two evil stepsisters, Johnston's stepmother is almost comparatively benign, while Christopher Shields blithers with distinction as King Darling, Prince Charming's dad.

The only truly false notes in this opening night performance were a couple of musical ones. The orchestra sounded thin in Fletcher Opera House, and Rebecca Beyler's rare singing moments in the title role were problematic on opening night. Jason Roberts had brief difficulty as well in his few musical moments as the Prince. But the large ensemble numbers were danced and sung with brio, and strong performances kept the show and audience from lingering on its deficits.

It's interesting the degree to which Cinderella centers more on the Fairy Godmother than the title character. In many ways, it's her show--in how she commands the fates, bosses her helpers, Nut and Bolt, and ultimately saves the day. Brown's performance adds just a little Mae West to everyone's favorite--and most practical--aunt, while physical comedy, sight gags, strong ensemble work--and shameless jokes aplenty--make the night worthwhile.

A more limited recommendation accompanies A Dickens of a Christmas, Triad Stage's recent addition to regional Christmas offerings. Since Preston Lane's one-person show is actually A Christmas Carol--no more or less--its relatively oblique title is puzzling. Though Lane's vocal and physical stylings differentiate well between the various characters--his Scrooge in particular is an amusingly vivid depiction of the old miser--other moments speak to the hazards of self-direction in a solo show. Lane repeatedly cheats dramatic moments as he abruptly--at times haphazardly--transitions from character to character. These flaws are hardly fatal, and they're nothing a good director couldn't address in short order--were he not on stage while the performance was happening. But their persistence in the show's second year is a needless irritant throughout--even more so than the drawings and illustrations projected against the stage's back wall, whose representations of ghosts and other entities take the place of our imagination.

The Nutcracker's third year by the Carolina Ballet stays the course charted in earlier offerings. Dance purists will not be surprised to learn that only about half of the show's running time is actually occupied by ballet. Exposition and gestures, theatrical flourishes and stage magic: these--and the herding of dozens of tiny tots onto the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium's stage and then off--occupy the rest of the evening. The faces of the children in the audience said it all the night I saw it--enchantment with the early scenes which perhaps tax adult patience; delight when the dancing began in earnest at the end of Act One and Act Two.

Under Alfred Sturgis' direction, the North Carolina Symphony begins Tchaikovsky's score as softly as a dream, or remembered music from a far off room. Gabor Kapin's majestic Northwind, abetted by Judanna Lynn's costume, rules the snow and enchants Audrey Hagopian as Clara, and the sculpted choreography for Rudy Candia Rivero made him a vivid escort through the land of sweets. Still, Hagopian seems clearly shepherded more than choreographed, away from serious dance, in Act Two.

The various candy sequences are imaginative; Heather Eberhardt's pensive turn as Turkish coffee was as notable as Wei Ni's take as Tea, although the reverie Tchaikovsky's minor-keyed movements can induce mustn't be discounted. Crowd scenes with child dancers were problematic to varying degrees, though sheer cuteness covered awkward moments with dimunitive gingerbread cookies and truffles.

When the dance purist in me began to balk at the padding, the children in the audience reminded me why I was there, and the music sealed the deal. They're all good reasons to check out The Nutcracker. Particularly if it's been a while. EndBlock

Reviews & Openings
OTHER NOTABLE OPENINGS:
A Christmas Memory, Theatre in the Park, Dec. 19-21; Choreo Collective, Culture Crawl, Wellness Partners for the Arts, Dec. 19; Filth: Scenes and Monologues from Banned Books, Dog and Pony Show, Manbites Dog Theater, Dec. 19-20.

REVIEWS:
***1/2 Hobson's Choice, Playmakers Rep--This surprisingly graceful comedy presents Anarchy in the U.K. --one century removed--as Rachel Fowler's unsinkable Maggie Hobson single-handedly upends Victorian social order in her family's Manchester shoe store. As her obese, obtuse and miserly father, Robert Breuler recalls Leo McKern's finest work in Rumpole, but with twice the vinegar. When he sentences her to spinsterhood (and a lifetime of endless free labor in his shop), Maggie revolts, arranging marriages for her vain sisters, and her own to downtrodden downstairs bootmaker Willie (Jeffrey Blair Cornell). The balance of the play still impresses: If the characters were any more intransigent, ground down or calculating, you'd have tragedy or melodrama. But characters' fortunes and the social order miraculously turn, without crushing anyone--just this once. (Tue.-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 2 p.m.. Thru Dec. 21. UNC Center for Dramatic Art, Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill. $32-$10. 962-7529.)

*** A Taffeta Christmas, Temple Theater--Who cares if it's mid-December? This musical grab bag of 1950s popular songs proves it's never to late to go back to, uh, camp. When a squeaky clean quartet patterned on mid-century girl groups introduced a song as a holiday favorite of their parents, we braced for insulin shock, until an addled "Jambalaya"--complete with ridiculous synchronized swimming choreography lifted from old Esther Williams films--reassured us this wasn't your average holiday musical. Though this second Taffeta show is thinner on character and plot than the first, there's more than enough laughs and improbably goony song segues to make this campy send-up worth the drive to Sanford. (Thurs., 1:30 & 7 p.m.; Fri-Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 2:30 p.m. Thru Dec. 21. 120 Carthage St., Sanford. $18-$10. 774-4155.)

*** Romeo & Juliet, Tiny Ninja Theater, Manbites Dog Theater--I felt not unlike a fool, with my toy binoculars trained on barely-moving inch-high plastic toys on an ironing board of a stage, while solo puppeteer Dov Weinstein attributed Shakespearean dialogue to them from above. Did I think they were about to change facial expression, or make a sudden gesture? Apparently so. Much of this act's attraction involves seeing how Weinstein ingeniously solves set, light and blocking problems that naturally arise from staging a judiciously-edited classic with a phalanx of brightly colored ninjas, smiley face toys and other refugees from a 25 cents machine. Just as our interest in cardboard shadowbox sets and other workarounds begins to wane, Weinstein's droll vocal representations amuse, with an Elmer Fuddy monarch and a boney apothecary reminiscent of Peter Lorre on an orientalist kick. The puppeteer removes tongue from cheek with his pensive title characters, eerily embodying both in their final soliloquies. But beware: With this show, a combination of end row seats and smudgy cheap binoculars are more likely to leave you with an eyestrain headache than an appreciation of microscopic theater. (Closed Dec. 14)

** Sorry! Wrong Chimney, Actors Comedy Lab--A talented cast including David McClutchey, Seth Blum and Amy Flynn largely wastes its time on this low-grade yuletide sex farce about Christmas contraband, marital secrets and suspicions, and hyp-mo-tized burglars and lawmen. One reason for optimism: Rebecca Blum's continuing development as an actor. (Thur.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m.. Thru Dec. 21. Thompson Theatre, NCSU. $15-12. 515-1100.)

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