- Derek Carlisle
It's the most wonderful time of the year—and for a lot of people, one of the most stressful. Between shopping and dealing with relatives, your kids' school programs and bad weather, it's easy to get into a tunnel vision that doesn't allow you to really feel the spirit of art inspired by the holidays.
Every year, Utah stages overflow with Christmas- and holiday-themed performances, ranging from decades-old traditions to brand-new creations. The examples provided here—with more in our Essentials section, see p. 15—should not be considered a comprehensive list, or cast as secondary anything that we didn't have time or space to mention. Instead, think of this as a way to start thinking about making art a holiday priority. Slow down for a moment to let creative people share stories and ideas that we all need to remember. Whether you want something comfortably familiar or something that will spark you to ponder the real meaning of Christmas, something for the whole family or something just for the grown-ups, you'll find a choice that's right for you.
1. The Nutshell!
For Mannakin Theater and Dance artistic director Nathan Cottam, the idea started simply enough: He wanted to mount a production of The Nutcracker, but he didn't have a school at the time to find young performers for the show. So he decided on a DIY solution: inviting children attending the performance to come up on stage and become part of it.
"I designed a battle scene between mice and soldiers, where I would just give a 30-minute lesson and put them on stage," Cottam says. "I remained on stage in kind of the conductor's spot, directing traffic, getting them to remember their parts. ... Sounds like a mess, right?"
Instead of a mess, however, he ended up with something spontaneous and interactive that appealed not just to the youngsters, but to parents and other adults who also find themselves with an opportunity to participate in the show. Grown-ups get a chance to learn (or re-learn) a waltz for the Waltz of the Flowers. "Adult participation went so well [that], at one show in San Francisco we didn't have any kids, so it was all adults, and it was a blast," Cottam says.
He also shakes up the traditional staging of Nutcracker by involving local community groups to put on traditional, authentic ethnic and cultural dances, whereas the original production typically has its Chinese, Russian and other similar dances. In Salt Lake City, that means groups like Tablado Dance showcasing their work. And for many of those dancers, it's also a dream come true. "I watched rehearsal briefly, and asked [the dancers], ages 15-25, 'Has anybody been in The Nutcracker?,'" Cottam says. "Nobody had. When I asked, 'Are you excited to,' they practically erupted." (Scott Renshaw)
Rose Wagner Center, 138 W. 300 South, 801-355-2787, Nov. 29, 7 p.m.; Nov. 30, 2 & 8 p.m., $12-$28, artsaltlake.org
2. Utah Symphony: Messiah Sing-in
The scriptures found in the Old Testament Book of Isaiah feature some of the most beautiful poetry ever translated into the English language. More than 2,000 years later, George Fredric Handel put those words to music as he created what has come to be known as Messiah. The entire composition is 53 different pieces of music, including a number of choruses.
More than 200 years after that, when Isaiah's words and Handel's music are combined with more than 1,000 voices from people of all walks of life gathered together in Abravanel Hall, the result is a Salt Lake City holiday tradition that is moving and unforgettable. Anyone who shows up with a Messiah score—or purchases one in the lobby beforehand—can stand and sing with everyone else on choruses such as "For Unto Us a Child Is Born," "Glory to God in the Highest" and, of course, "Hallelujah."
The massive chorus is accompanied by the Utah Symphony, under the baton of associate conductor Conner Gray Covington, with the Westminster Community Choir providing support. Between choruses, Utah Opera resident artists—soprano Grace Kahl, mezzo-soprano Quinn Middleman, tenor Addison Marlor and baritone-bass Brandon Bell—sing various arias from Handel's masterwork.
This year, Utah Symphony and The Road Home will host a fundraising and clothing drive at both Messiah Sing-in evenings. Singers can bring donations of cash or items such as toiletries, blankets and apparel. This performance is the first of several holiday-themed symphony performances, including A Broadway Christmas with Ashley Brown, and the Here Comes Santa Claus kid-friendly performance of seasonal favorites. (Geoff Griffin)
Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, 385-468-1010, Nov. 30-Dec. 1, 7:30 p.m., $15-$40, utahsymphony.org
3. The Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire's Snowball 2019: Christmas in New York
Even those who have been in Utah for decades might not be aware that the state's longest-tenured LGBTQ organization is The Royal Court of the Golden Spike Empire, which traces its roots back to 1976. Their annual Snowball winter event boasts almost as long a history, beginning as a fundraiser for Toys for Tots in 1978, but shifting to become a fundraiser for AIDS-related causes when the crisis hit the gay community in the 1980s.
In 2019, according to current RCGSE board of directors president Jared Petersen-Craig, that tradition continues with another semi-formal event, with the theme "Christmas in New York." All proceeds go to local charities supporting those with HIV/AIDS by helping to provide, food, medication, payment of medical bills and more.
Petersen-Craig—who performs under the drag persona Vega Starr—notes that in addition to the catered dinner provided by a donation from LUX Catering and Events, attendees will get a full evening of performances "by some of Salt Lake's most talented entertainers, members of the RCGSE, and entertainers from out of state." Those who like to spend at least some of their holiday time being charitable have a great chance to combine a fun evening with a great cause. "The higher the attendance, the more money we are able to give back to the community," Petersen-Craig says. (SR)
Rose Wagner Center Black Box, 138 W. 300 South, 801-355-2787, Dec. 1, 4 p.m., $20, artsaltlake.org
- Gary Emord Netzley
4. A Christmas Story: The Musical
Heartwarming stories ring with special resonance around the holiday season. No wonder then that the 1983 film A Christmas Story became so synonymous with Yuletide cheer. What could be sweeter than the tale of young Ralphie Parker, a boy who will go to any length to attain the gift of his dreams, an official Red Ryder Air Rifle? Despite the warning of every adult he encounters—"You'll shoot your eye out"—Ralphie makes it his mission to reap that reward.
Naturally, it's ideal fodder for a touring musical stage show, especially as envisioned by the talented songwriting team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul that garnered a Tony Award for the musical Dear Evan Hansen and an Oscar for the hit film La La Land. Not surprisingly then, A Christmas Story: The Musical scored critical kudos of its own after making its Broadway bow in 2012, as well as Tony nominations for Best New Musical, Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical.
"The musical features all of those classic moments from the movie that audiences have come to know and love—the bunny suit, the leg lamp, even the Bumpus Hounds—with the story elevated by show-stopping musical numbers," director Michael Rader says via email. "It's all about the joy and giving of the holiday, being with family, friends and loved ones ... a nice, warm, emotional feeling."
We're charmed already. Maybe we'll use Ralphie's strategy to get us a gift of a new Ferrari. (Lee Zimmerman)
Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main, 385-468-1010, Dec. 3-8, dates and times vary, $65-$120, artsaltlake.org
- Suni Gugliotti
5. Grand Theatre: Amahl and the Night Visitors and A Christmas Carol
If you feel as though you have limited time to fit holiday theater into your schedule, here's a way to be particularly efficient: You can enjoy two classic tales on the same stage for the price of one. For the fourth year, the musical operettas Amahl and the Night Visitors and A Christmas Carol share joint-headliner status at Salt Lake Community College's Grand Theatre, presenting the tale of a crippled shepherd boy's encounter with the Three Kings on the first Christmas night, and an original musical version of the classic Dickens story by locals Mike Leavitt and Anthony Buck.
According to SLCC's Suni Gugliotti, the productions are a collaboration with the University of Utah School of Music and Salt Lake Symphony. The Amahl/Carol production is also part of a "mini-season" package that interested potential attendees can combine with the Grand Theatre's other two holiday-season offerings: the Lark & Spur Christmas concert (Nov. 30) and Christmas with a cappella group Eclipse 6 (Dec. 12).
Gugliotti believes that the focus of both narratives on the idea of belonging to something bigger than yourself makes them ideal for the holiday season. "Both capture similar themes about community and holiday miracles," she says. "The shows are about community, and they also implement the community. You might know the musicians that are playing on stage." (SR)
Grand Theatre, 1575 S. State, 801-957-3322, Dec. 5-6, 7:30 p.m.; Dec. 7, 2 & 7:30 p.m., $16-$26, grandtheatrecompany.com
- Comet Higley
6. Wasatch Theatre Co.: The Lord of Misrule
For the most part, Christmas entertainment tends to be of the feel-good variety. Director RJ Walker wants to shake things up a bit, while offering a reminder of the way the holidays should be about inspiring us to be our best selves.
Drawn from a centuries-old Christmas tradition in which a beggar would be anointed by the masses to get the wealthy to be generous—by force, if necessary—The Lord of Misrule brings the concept into a contemporary setting with a fundraiser for The Road Home shelter. Here, it's shady televangelist Lucas Karol whose actions during a Christmas pageant come under the control of an unruly mob.
That control, however, largely comes from the audience members. Those in attendance will be given cards suggesting a variety of actions that might play out on stage—for example, according to Walker, "Maybe a character has to draw a penis on their face. Or every time the Pastor says a sentence, he might have to end it with the word 'Daddy.'" Which suggestions become part of the performance will be based on the highest total amount of money donated to The Road Home, so attendees are encouraged to bring cash. The result, Walker says, is something that's "a little bit fringe theater, a little bit charity, a little bit drunk Shakespeare."
Walker likes the idea of creating a holiday theater option with a more direct-action component. "I decided I wanted to take a piece of Christmas that's a little more irreverent, and put that in a play that reflects the spirit of giving," he says. "It's interactive, it's rowdy, it's irreverent." (SR)
Wasatch Theatre Co., 124 S. 400 West, 801-869-4600, Dec. 6-7 & Dec. 13-14, 7 p.m., $5 plus donations welcome, wtcblackbox.com
7. An Other Theater Co.: The Santaland Diaries
Two years ago, when actor Jordan Kramer was first cast as the lead in An Other Theatre Co.'s holiday production of David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries, he had never heard of it before. But it only took listening to the writer's 1992 NPR essay—which eventually became a stage version—to know that it was both a great text and a challenge for an actor.
"The thing about Sedaris is his humor is very dry, and that's where it has its charm," Kramer says. "So the challenge is transforming it into a theatrical style, and embody not just his words, but how can I entertain people who are here and now. ... It feels like you're doing an hour's worth of stand-up, but you're not allowed to re-write the jokes. The only thing you can change is how you approach the jokes."
The Santaland Diaries captures Sedaris' experience as a struggling would-be writer who takes a seasonal job as an elf—called Crumpet—in New York's legendary Macy's Santaland. It addresses the unique charms and challenges of working in a retail environment during one of the most hectic times of the year.
"As much as we'd like to think that we're better to each other during Christmas and full of spirit, the holidays can sometimes bring out the worst in people," Kramer says. "I love Christmas, but when you stop and think about it, how did this happen? How did we as a species develop these weird traditions with men in red suits and candy canes, and repeat that tradition to our children over and over and over again. It's absurd and ridiculous yet so near and dear to us." (SR)
An Other Theater Co. Black Box, 1200 Towne Centre Blvd., Provo, Dec. 6-21, dates and times vary, $12-$17, anothertheater.org
- Beau Pearson
8. Ballet West's The Nutcracker
As America entered the Christmas season in late 1944, the nation was still very much involved in World War II. D-Day had happened the previous summer, but the Battle of the Bulge was about to begin, and V-E and V-J days were still months away.
Against this backdrop, choreographer Willam Christensen had what seemed to be an impossible idea: Stage America's first full-length production of Tchaikovsky's The Nutcracker. Furthermore, he planned to pull it off not in New York City or another cultural metropolis, but in Salt Lake City.
The result, of course, is a 75-year history of success. Critics and the public loved it. "We can't understand why a vehicle of such fantastic beauty and originality would not be produced in its entirety in this country until now," the Sacramento Union gushed during that first season. When asked how long he thought the production could run, Christensen responded, "As long as there are children."
Kids are still around in 2019, some of them the grandkids and great-grandkids of the first children who were charmed by The Nutcracker back in 1944. One of the things that makes this a great Utah tradition is that parents and grandparents can take the latest generation to a performance knowing that there will be costumes, scenery, or dances that they once thrilled to as children.
This year's production features Christensen's original choreography and takes place in the newly renovated Capitol Theatre. Grab a kid and go re-enjoy some of your fondest Christmas memories. (GG)
Capitol Theatre, 50 W. 200 South, 801-355-2787, Dec. 7-26, dates and times vary, $42-$109, balletwest.org
9. Made In Utah Winter Fest
Amazon is taking over, corporations rule the world and, frankly, it's getting a bit exhausting. Rather than give money to what is rapidly moving toward technologically-powered overlords, the Made in Utah Winter Fest at The Gateway offers a better option this winter holiday season.
Utah is full of local artisans who are not trying to establish nation-wide monopolies. Built in partnership with Made in Utah, the winter fest is the winter version of the annual Made in Utah festival that takes place in August, and showcases local vendors' cool creations. The festival is for "Anyone who loves art and music and wants to immerse themselves in something truly unique this holiday season" Jacklyn Briggs, marketing director at The Gateway, says. Winter Fest is also not going to be solely focused on the holidays that regularly get the most spotlight here in the Western Hemisphere, like the Winter Solstice, Kwanzaa or Diwali.
Wait a second, strike that: Christmas is the one that gets all the attention. But at Winter Fest, musical acts will represent other winter celebrations, too.
"The light display throughout the property this year will truly be something special," Briggs adds. "It will feel dream-like with bright colors, oversized woodland sculptures, and tons of opportunities for photo ops. It's something non-traditional and different than what you'd find anywhere else."
If you like lights, multicultural performances and celebrations, and seeing the work of local artisans, Winter Fest might just be a good stop for you. (Casey Koldewyn)
The Gateway, 18 N. Rio Grande St., 801-456-0000, Saturdays, Dec. 7-21, 1-9 p.m.; Sundays, Dec. 8-22, 1-7 p.m., free, madeinutahfest.com
- Matt Christine Photography
10. Mannheim Steamroller
Certain traditions are so closely tied to Christmas, any seasonal celebration would be impossible to imagine without them: annual television specials, innumerable recitations of "The Night Before Christmas," Black Friday sales (that now impede on Thanksgiving), spiked egg nog and office parties where someone invariably embarrasses him or herself by doing something stupid and spending the entire next year trying to live it down.
Mannheim Steamroller also lays claim to being an integral part of the holidays, thanks to more than two dozen chart-topping, multi-million selling Christmas albums which integrate equal parts neo-classical New Age composition, progressive rock, avant-garde imaginings, and even a bit of baroque. Conceived and created 35 years ago by music producer and entrepreneur Chip Davis, Mannheim Steamroller has evolved into one of the most successful independent record labels in the world (American Gramophone), the longest-running consecutive concert tour in history, two touring bands, and a cottage industry that includes novelty items, specialty foods, healing technology and lifestyle accessories.
"When I wanted to do a Christmas album way back when, I was told that you only do that when your career is over," Davis says via email. "So I went ahead and did it on my own and the rest is history."
Indeed, Mannhein Steamroller ranks as the No. 1 Christmas artist of all time, with sales of more than 30 million discs. The second highest selling holiday artist, Elvis Presley, claims a little over half that amount. That's a stat that would certainly cause the King to feel all shook up. (LZ)
Eccles Theater, 131 S. Main, 385-468-1010, Dec. 17-18, 7:30 p.m., $40-$60, artsaltlake.org
11. The Bell Ringer
For Utah native Peter Orullian, it's been a journey of 30 years—since he first came up with the germ of the idea in high school—to bring to life his idea for a Christmas-themed rock opera. Along the way, he's mastered a host of skills that allowed him to do it right. "If you're self-reflective enough, you realize there are certain stories you're not ready to tell as a storyteller," Orullian says. "You hold on to it until you are ready."
A trained vocalist, songwriter, musician and novelist, Orullian is no stranger to combining songs with storytelling; he wrote the novelization accompanying prog-metal band Dream Theater's concept album The Astonishing. For The Bell Ringer, he builds a narrative around a central character who, over the course of a day, has experiences that, according to Orullian, "show him his own sense of value and self-worth, by virtue of his willingness to be a kind and willing ear when somebody needed that."
Orullian is also aware that the phrase "rock opera" might create an impression in others that doesn't entirely correspond to the way he thinks about this show. "There are songs rooted in rock and roll, guitars and drums, those building blocks," he says. "Opera makes sense, because there are through lines in the music. ... Song by song, I'm hoping people come on this journey with the bell ringer, learning that it's not in spite of his past, but because of those things, that he's qualified to help people."
The 2019 debut marks the first full tour for The Bell Ringer, for which Orullian has also completed recording the album. Portions of the proceeds support the Toys for Tots Literacy Program. (SR)
Rose Wagner Center, 138 W. 300 South, 801-355-2787, Dec. 19, 7:30 p.m., $30-$40, artsaltlake.org
- Eric Christensen
12. Odyssey Dance Theatre: Redux Nut-Cracker
Holiday traditions are not complete without attending a performance of The Nutcracker. Odyssey Dance Theatre's (ODT) clever rejuvenation of this tale transforms it from the 1800s to the present day.
Originally finding the idea of a Nutcracker in today's world dated, ODT's founder and artistic director Derryl Yeager envisioned an interpretation involving elements that could reach across generations. He and his team have worked to create an engaging storyline—now in its seventh year—for all ages, as well as revamping the original Tchaikovsky score into a modern pop/hip-hop arrangement.
Instead of using an obsolete nutcracker, Yeager chose an iPhone as the "catalyst for an adventure," and takes audience members on a magical quest with many surprises along the way.
"The iPhone becomes the center of Clara's world with the wonders and pitfalls that entails," Yeager says. "Each piece in the show is related to what you can discover and experience with your phone."
Replacing the supporting cast with contemporary characters such as Mario, Luigi and Angry Birds, the re-imagined narrative incorporates a variety of dance styles, not to mention various realms. Want to see how a vintage DeLorean, robots and gangsta mice mingle with Mario, Luigi and a few Angry Birds? For only seven days in December, Redux Nut-Cracker plays to sold-out crowds, so be sure to get tickets early.
"If you've been to one too many Nutcrackers, this is still the one to see," Yeager adds. (Colette A. Finney)
Kingsbury Hall, 1395 E. Presidents Circle, 801-581-7100, Dec. 17-23, 7:30 p.m. (with an additional performance on Dec. 21 at 2 p.m.), $20-$40, odysseydance.com