It's back. The holiday season. All those alternately warming and wearing weeks with family and friends, all those seasonal entertainments you can take them to (or use as a way to escape from them).
The usual mass of "Messiahs" and inevitable "Nutcrackers" once again dot the calendar. Adding to the deja vu factor, the 2014 lineup of Christmasy diversions on Baltimore's arts and entertainment scene bears similarities to the 2013 one.
Last year offered a theatrical adaptation of the classic film "It's a Wonderful Life" by the ensemble ArtsCentric; this year offers a different theatrical adaptation of "It's a Wonderful Life" at Center Stage.
Last year, 19th-century American life was the focus of "A Civil War Christmas" at Center Stage. This year, 19th-century American life gets another look, via a new version of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company that relocates the action to Baltimore.
A more recent bit of the past will return this season — the chorus line of tap-dancing Santas that provided a showstopper in the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra's Holiday Spectacular last presented four years ago.
And to put extra sizzle into the season, cirque artists will take flight, a couple of them at the BSO's new holiday pops show and a whole troupe at the Modell-Lyric Performing Arts Center, where the Cirque Dreams Holidaze extravaganza is set to soar.
Here is a closer look at these attractions:
'It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play'
Since its release in 1946, Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" remains among the most popular Christmas-centric movies ever made. The story of George Bailey, who contemplates suicide on Christmas Eve when life in supposedly idyllic Bedford Falls doesn't seem worth living, can still tug at the heartstrings.
Not long after the film's release, its two stars, James Stewart and Donna Reed (she played George's wife), re-created their roles for radio audiences — many a movie was turned into a radio play back in the day.
This second version inspired an adaptation by Joe Landry set in a 1947 radio studio, where a group of actors and sound effects staffers are seen delivering a dramatization of "It's a Wonderful Life." For the Center Stage production, directed by Nelson T. Eusebio III, count on a touch of localization.
"The radio station is WBAL, and we have added radio commercials for local products," Eusebio says. "I think it will be delightful for Baltimore audiences to see little bits of themselves."
Those audiences will see more than the process of performing a play for radio.
"Eventually, through George's story, you see the actors shed their scripts," Eusebio says, "as their world melts away and becomes Bedford Falls."
Throughout this transformation, all the roles in the story will be divided up among only five actors. Eusebio told the actors to take whatever they wanted from their counterparts in the movie, but his goal was not to produce a performance of imitators.
"I just want something that is worthy of the film," the director says.
Eileen Rivera portrays George's mother and daughters, the town's (sort-of) bad girl, and others.
"The whole cast watched the movie together," Rivera says. "I had seen it before, but I saw things that were new to me and I wanted to use. But acting on film is so different. I had to find my own way."
The messages in the movie remain the same in the play.
"To call it a holiday show does a disservice to the struggles George deals with," Eusebio says. "There is an Arthur Miller-like relevance to the moral setup of the piece. There's a line in there: 'Do you know how long it takes a working man to save $5,000?' Even now, it takes a long time for a working man or woman to save that much."
For all of the Christian elements in the plot, including a guardian angel named Clarence, Eusebio sees an ecumenical quality to George's story.
"He isn't redeemed by Clarence, but by his community and fellow man," the director says. "It's a lovely journey."
"It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play," currently in previews, opens Tuesday and runs through Dec. 21 at Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St. Tickets are $19 to $69. Call 410-332-0033, or go to centerstage.org.
'A Christmas Carol'
It wouldn't be Christmas without Scrooge, Bob Cratchit, a ghostly trio and Tiny Tim. They'll all be conjured up in a version of "A Christmas Carol" adapted and directed by Chesapeake Shakespeare Company's founding artistic director Ian Gallanar.
While moving the story to 1840s Baltimore, he kept the company's handsome new digs on the corner of S. Calvert and E. Redwood streets in mind. Scrooge's business address is identified in the play as 202 E. German Street, which is what it would have been before the street name was changed to Redwood in the early 20th century. (The theater company moved the front door to the Calvert side.)
"Baltimore is a nice match for London of that period," Gallanar says. "It was a big industrial city and had the same issues of rich and poor. I have Scrooge living in Mount Vernon, his nephew Fred in Otterbein And we reference Shakespeare St. [near Thames St. in Fells Point] because, well, we just have to."
The production includes music and dancing. Traditional English carols, which would have been sung in Baltimore as much as in London at the time, will be included, along with American and African-American songs of the season. There will also be an Irish carol, "because we talk about Irish immigration," Gallanar says.
Several companies around the country offer productions of "A Christmas Carol" every year, a tradition Gallanar envisions for Chesapeake Shakespeare.
"We've smashed our record for pre-show sales already, so there is certainly interest in it this year," Gallanar says. "I have a bit of a desire for ritual around the holiday season. That's one reason I like 'Christmas Carol' so much. I love to hear the story at this time of year. And I love the idea of people coming together and sharing it."
"A Christmas Carol" runs Dec. 5 to 23 at Chesapeake Shakespeare Company, 7 South Calvert St. Tickets are $29 to $48. Call 410-244-8570, or go to chesapeakeshakespeare.com.
'Cirque Dreams Holidaze'
The popularity of acrobat- and aerialist-filled cirque shows never seems to wane, which explains why South Florida-based Cirque Productions has been going strong for two decades. Its colorful shows include one for Christmas, "Cirque Dreams Holidaze," which will play the Modell-Lyric.
"This is the sixth year I've been touring 'Holidaze,' and this year I have three companies touring it simultaneously, which is a feat in itself," says Neil Goldberg, founder of Cirque Productions. "Each company has 30 performers, 350 costumes and 400 hand props."
Last week, one of those companies performed excerpts on the plaza of New York's Rockefeller Plaza for NBC's "Today Show."
"My goal was to create a holiday entertainment that had the feeling of a Broadway musical with big production numbers," Goldberg says, "a celebration of this time of year — the frenzy of shopping, the cold of winter. Santa does what he can do only in a cirque show. I've got a contortionist from Mongolia in a candy cane costume. Even Elvis is a character."
Goldberg helped to provide a key visual ingredient to "Holidaze."
"I'm a Jewish guy from New York who, much to my parents' surprise, started collecting Christmas ornaments at the age of 6," says Goldberg, whose collection eventually grew to more than 10,000. "I took hundreds of them into our costume facility in Fort Lauderdale and asked if they could make costumes that looked like the ornaments."
The stage crew then fashioned a steel-framed Christmas tree to support the costumed performers, allowing the "ornaments" to come to life during the show.
"The whole goal is to bring a smile to people's faces," Goldberg says.
"Cirque Dreams Holidaze" runs Dec. 26 to 28 at Modell-Lyric Performing Arts Center, 140 W Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $49 to $69. Call 410-547-7328, or go to ticketmaster.com.
'Holly Jolly Pops'
For five years, the BSO transformed Meyerhoff Symphony Hall into quite a playland with big sets, vivid costumes, such notable guest stars as Maureen McGovern, and tapping Santas for "Holiday Spectacular," masterminded and led by principal pops conductor Jack Everly.
Production costs and declining attendance caused the show to be put into mothballs in 2010. After that came a couple of holiday shows featuring cirque troupes, and a traditional holiday pops program featuring the Baltimore Choral Arts Society.
For 2014, the BSO offers "Holly Jolly Pops," which takes a little from each of the previous ventures. Everly will be back on the podium. The Choral Arts ensemble will join the orchestra again. A couple of aerialists from Cirque de la Symphonie will add spice. And for fans of the old "Holiday Spectacular," there is the return of those lovable, high-stepping Santas.
"The BSO told me, 'If there is any way you can bring them back in, please do it,'" Everly says. "It's nice to know this is so popular."
Dancers from the Baltimore School for the Arts will get the spotlight in another segment of the program, which mixes secular and sacred pieces (Hanukkah gets a nod as well as Christmas). One of the cirque artists will debut a whimsical new character during the show.
And Everly has added two vocal soloists he admires greatly to the mix: Debbie Gravitte, who earned a Tony Award for her performance in "Jerome Robbins on Broadway"; and Ted Keegan, who played the title role in "The Phantom of the Opera" on Broadway and on tour.
"It is quite the 'Ed Sullivan Show' of musical numbers and performers," Everly says. "Of course, there's something for everyone."
"Holly Jolly Pops" will be performed Dec. 10 and Dec. 12-14 at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.; Dec. 11 at the Music Center at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, North Bethesda. Tickets are $18 to $94. Call 410-783-8000, or go to bsomusic.org.