By Charles Brousse
Back in the dimming days when I was a kid on the block, as soon as the holiday season rolled around I overheard the grownups grumble about “the commercialization of Christmas.” Store sales started on Black Friday after the Thanksgiving repast and extended into December, when there was a pause around Christmas Day before one last burst of New Year’s shopping. My family wasn’t particularly religious—in fact, they gladly welcomed the reduced prices—but there was still a kind of rueful feeling that something was being lost.
Theater, along with the other performing arts (music, dance, TV and film), tried to fill in the gap with program content that celebrated the spiritual and ethical heritage of this annual event. I remember noting how many adaptations of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol there were: They seemed to pop up everywhere, like mushrooms after a heavy rain. A few years later in this chronology, the movies gave us Miracle on 34th Street and It’s a Wonderful Life, Gian Carlo Menotti’s sweet Amahl and the Night Visitors had regular performances and TV offered the special annual Andy Williams Christmas Show, which wasn’t overtly religious or morally preachy, but whose genuine humanistic spirit carried a powerful message of good will toward all.
Leaving aside the many other examples I could cite, fast forward to 2016. The shopping season in stores and online is now year-round and only becomes slightly more intense in November and December. As society has become increasingly secular and materialistic, practically nobody complains about the “commercialization of Christmas” anymore. Theater reflects this shift. A Google search reveals that there are only three productions of A Christmas Carol around the Bay Area this season—in Santa Rosa, Walnut Creek and San Francisco. You have to trek over to Hayward if you want to see It’s a Wonderful Life. Amahl is not being done anywhere. With those limitations in mind, the following is a list of holiday shows that I think will help to raise your spirits after an unusually dreary year.
H.M.S. Pinafore (Ross Valley Players) Runs through December 18 at the Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center; 30 Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, Ross; $12-27; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley (Marin Theatre Company) Runs through December 18; Marin Theatre Company; 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley; $10-55; 415/388-5208; marintheatre.org.
A Christmas Carol (6th Street Playhouse) Runs through December 23; 52 W. 6th Street, Santa Rosa; $15-33; 707/523-4185; 6thstreetplayhouse.com.
946: The Amazing Story of Adolphus Tips (Berkeley Repertory Theatre, in association with Kneehigh and Birmingham Rep) Runs through January 15, 2017 in BRT’s Roda Theatre; 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley; $17.50-97; 510/647-2949; berkeleyrep.org.
A Christmas Carol (Center REPertory Company) Runs through December 18 at the Hofmann Theatre; 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek; $27-49; 925/943-1469; centerrep.org.
It’s a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play Runs through December 11 at the Douglas Morrisson Theatre; 22311 N. Third Street, Hayward; $15-29; 510/881-6777; dmtonline.org.
The Velveteen Rabbit Runs through December 11 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; 700 Howard Street, San Francisco; $15-75; 415/978-2787; odcdance.org.
A Christmas Carol (American Conservatory Theater) Runs through December 24; Geary Theater, 415 Geary Street, San Francisco; $25-130; 415/749-2228; act-sf.org.
She Loves Me (San Francisco Playhouse) Runs through January 14, 2017; 458 Post Street, San Francisco; 415/677-9596; sfplayhouse.org.
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (SHN) Runs through December 24 at the Golden Gate Theatre; 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco; $45-214; 888/746-7799; shnsfcom.
If I had to choose among the three competing Christmas Carols, it would be Center REP’s. It’s closer to Dickens’ original, captures the old London flavor better and it’s easier to find parking.
One final note: While Christmas-themed theater productions have diminished in number, music and dance offerings have proliferated. Maybe the shift to a nonverbal format is a natural progression for a thoroughly secularized culture that prefers leaving spirituality (if any) to individual choice.