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‘Twas the night before Christmas in a pandemic age, and many creatures were stirring, especially backstage. In contrast to last year’s largely dormant pre-vaccine holiday season, this year’s ho-ho-ho time is welcoming back live performance in a big way, with a multitude of offerings to delight and dazzle as we round out 2021. Below is a rundown of all the holiday theater highlights, which run for far more than 12 days but will include four Ebenezer Scrooges, three wise men singing, two ’60s TV adaptations and a partridge in a peach tree (street).

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Black Nativity: A Gospel Music Christmas Experience
Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts, December 2-19

Next month, Dominion Entertainment Group enters its ninth season producing its adaptation of the beloved Langston Hughes-penned retelling of the baby-in-a-manger Christmas story, which incorporates gospel music and dance and features a powerhouse cast. Black Nativity was first produced off-Broadway in 1961, toward the end of Hughes’ life and during the Civil Rights Movement.

Dominion Entertainment Group Executive Producer and Director Robert John Connor began presenting “Black Nativity” after True Colors Theatre ceased production of the show in 2012.

It’s an Atlanta tradition going back to the 1990s, when Jomandi Productions staged it every year. After Jomandi shuttered in the early aughts, the mantle passed hands to Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company for several years. Then, in 2012, when Dominion Executive Producer and Director Robert John Connor found out that True Colors would halt its production of the festive favorite, he recalls, “I was like, don’t worry about it, I got it.”

Of course, it wasn’t immediately clear how exactly he’d launch the production given that, at first, he only had about $500 raised through crowdfunding. But he took a leap of faith and things came together — and the show has grown to be presented in spaces such as Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center and toured around the Southeast.

This year, Black Nativity will play at Georgia Tech’s Ferst Center for the Arts. It’s the company’s first Christmas back performing in real-time in front of an in-person audience since the start of the Covid pandemic. Last year, Dominion pre-recorded the show at Elizabeth Baptist Church and livestreamed it.

A cast member for eight years, singer and actress Latrice Pace said, “Because of the pandemic that we’ve all been facing, I do not know one person in my world that has not experienced loss. Not just the loss of people but the loss of income, loss of social interaction.”

In response, Pace said that everyone is approaching this year’s run with “a greater appreciation for life, a greater appreciation for one another, and an even greater appreciation for being able to tell this story. Coming back at this moment, we’re ready to help fill those tanks and help people feel not so depleted.”

Almost a year and three-quarters into a pandemic that has reignited frank conversations and calls for action to address racism and inequity in Atlanta’s arts community, Connor said he finds it powerful to be putting on a show with an all-Black cast.

“The lie that is often told is, ‘We just can’t find the Black talent,'” he said.  “We all know that’s a lie. There’s a huge bastion of talent coming out of Atlanta that are being overlooked because of cultural biases and practices. I got tired of asking the mainstream community for opportunities for myself and my colleagues. If I, as a producer, can provide platforms for some of these upcoming artists, my life is well-lived.

In past years, Dominion has invited venerated choirs from churches around Atlanta to join on different nights. However, this year, out of continued precaution amid the pandemic, Connor said that he and his team have streamlined the choral cast by assembling a core group of choir members from various churches to perform in every show. Musical direction is by Keith Wilson, with choreography by Dawn Axam.

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The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes — Holiday Edition
Out Front Theatre, December 10-19 

Spend your holiday in 1980s Miami with your favorite gang of wisecracking women: Dorothy, Rose, Blanche and Sophia. Out Front Theatre’s production, directed by Michael Bartkiewicz, brings to Atlanta the rollicking sitcom spoof that originated at Chicago’s Hell in a Handbag Productions.

In addition to the lively show itself, the theater is adding plenty of fun features, including a singalong to the iconic theme song, “Thank You For Being a Friend”; and a drinking game hosted by a local drag queen during a screening of one of two actual Golden Girls holiday-special episodes before the live theater portion starts. (One particularly memorable real episode, “Twas the Nightmare Before Christmas,” features the ladies getting held hostage by a deranged Santa.)

Out Front will also have a photo booth in the lobby and encourages attendees to dress up as their favorite characters.

Producing Artistic Director Paul Conroy said that the TV show’s continuing appeal and special place within the LGBTQ community are partly due to its legacy of being radically ahead of its time during its run from 1985 to 1992.

“As four older women, (the Golden Girls) got away with saying things and doing things on TV they otherwise they couldn’t do,” Conroy said. “Blanche has a gay brother. Rose thinks she may have contracted HIV. It was groundbreaking. We’re talking about the Reagan years where the president of the U.S. didn’t even say the word ‘AIDS’ (until 1985). And the writing is so wonderful. I think that it was a comforting show during such a terrible time in our community.” 

While Out Front lovingly turns up “the camp factor,” the set (particularly the wicker chairs) and the costumes, hair, makeup and general attitude will all be instantly recognizable. So whether you’re more of a Rue or a Betty, a Bea or an Estelle, this is one you won’t want to miss.

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Andrew Benator as Scrooge and Rhyn McLemore as the Ghost of Christmas Past in the Alliance Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol.” It’s one of four Atlanta takes on Dickens’ holiday theater classic. (Photo by Greg Mooney)

Four takes on A Christmas Carol
Alliance Theatre, through December 24
Dad’s Garage, November 26-December 29
Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, December 4-23 (previews December 2-3)
Stage Door Theatre, December 3-19

From the Muppets to Bill Murray, just about everyone has taken on the classic tale of forgiveness and redemption, and who can fault them? The eternal characters of Scrooge, Marley, Bob Cratchett and Tiny Tim . . . The simultaneously euphoric and haunting interplay between past, present and future . . . It’s endlessly riveting, moving stuff. And the fundamental truth that there’s no such thing as too much Scrooge is nowhere more evident than in the four metro theaters this year, each doing a take on the seasonal staple.

After setting a high bar for creativity during the 2020 holidays with its wildly innovative Christmas Carol: The Live Radio Play, produced out of necessity as a drive-in feature during peak pre-vaccine pandemic times, the Alliance Theatre is back indoors for its large-scale staging. But this year’s grand return to form has brought some notable changes, too, such as casting veteran actor Andrew Benator (who has portrayed Jacob Marley five times) as Ebenezer Scrooge, a new adaptation by David H. Bell, new costumes and a reconfigured set. Read our preview here.

Dad’s Garage’s Invasion Christmas Carol 2021 once again puts the “ahh, um” in “bah humbug” with its annual improvised Dickens of a comedic roasting. The Dad’s team is poised to deliver on-the-fly laughs woven into scripted theater, with special appearances by surprising guest stars such as Mrs. Claus, Colonel Sanders and a T-Rex.

After more than two decades of presenting A Christmas Carol, the Shakepeare Tavern Playhouse of Atlanta Shakespeare Company promises to deliver a “very special adaptation of a timeless classic . . . transporting you to Scrooge’s London counting house that fateful Christmas.”

Meanwhile, Stage Door Theatre changes things up with Scrooge being rendered by Candace Lambert. The actress also played Friar Lawrence in the Dunwoody troupe’s take on Romeo and Juliet — we sense a trend!

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Rent in Concert (also featuring Hedwig and the Angry Inch)”
Variety Playhouse, December 22-23

Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes, how do you measure a year? The question from the Rent song “Seasons of Love” is also valid when pondering how to measure a year of pandemic (surely the count is way higher). In 2021, the themes of Jonathan Larson’s Pulitzer-and-Tony-winning musical are alive and well. 

Rent debuted on Broadway in 1996 and showcased characters trying to find meaning and connection amid poverty, ostracization, illness, death, and uncertainty. The show begins and ends on Christmas Eve in lower Manhattan, one year apart. And while aspects of this very, VERY ‘90s adaptation of Puccini’s La Boheme may not have aged well (the flannel! the rock guitars! the earnest declarations of artsiness!), it’s hard to poke holes in its theme around affordable housing, especially in a city like Atlanta where rents have increased by a reported 17 percent in the last year alone.

“Rent in Concert”, directed by Grant McGowen of Pinch ‘N’ Ouch Theatre, promises an evening of memorable performances from a stacked cast, including Suzi Bass Award winner Kevin Harry (Sweeney Todd, Actor’s Express) and Hannah Zale, frontwoman of the feminist alt-rock band the Pussywillows. Plus, bonus, Exquisite Gender, the Atlanta LGBTQ+ rock band, will kick things off with performances from John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask’s masterpiece Hedwig and the Angry Inch. So put on some makeup, turn on the eight-track and pull that wig down from the shelf, y’all. 

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Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Center for Puppetry Arts, through January 2

It’s the story of a tormented outcast who’s alienated because of an otherworldly power with which he was born. Who then realizes that this extraordinary ability can save the day. No, this isn’t the latest installment of Marvel’s X-Men — just Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, coming back to inspire more childlike wonder through the art of puppetry.

This family-friendly show is based on the popular 1964 stop-motion animated television special, which recounts the tale of a little deer who gets bullied at first for this unusual red nose but then winds up guiding Santa’s sleigh just in time to save Christmas. 

As always, the Center for Puppetry Arts pulls the strings with unparalleled skill. And a ticket to the show also affords the chance to check out its extensive collection of puppets featured in the museum – including a treasure trove from the Jim Henson collection.

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Cecil Washington Jr. in Aurora Theatre’s “Christmas Canteen,” a holiday theater tradition in Gwinnett County that will help inaugurate the Lawrenceville Arts Center. (Photo by Chris Bartelski)

Christmas Canteen
Aurora Theatre, November 26-December 23

Aurora Theatre turns up the holiday sparkle with its popular annual revue to help inaugurate the new 500-seat Grand Stage Theatre of the Lawrenceville Arts Center. With some unexpected turns promised, Christmas Canteen features songs, comic sketches and sojourns down memory lane.

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“Libby’s at the Express: Ho, Ho Home for the Holidays and a Connie Sue Day Christmas”
Actor’s Express, Dec. 10-19

A 40-year veteran of stages across Atlanta, singer, performer and funny woman Libby Whittemore returns for her 10th season at the Express with this annual holiday show hoorah.

Whittemore began her illustrious career at Atlanta’s Harlequin Dinner Theatre, where she connected with Tom Edwards, who wrote and cast her to star in Della’s Diner, a musical comedy soap opera series of plays set in a Tennessee eating joint for daily specials and daily spectacles. The show became one of Atlanta’s longest-running musicals, briefly made it to off-Broadway in 1983, and developed an ardent cult following here. Best of all, it gave Whittemore the chance to originate the character of Connie Sue Day, “the 31st Lady of Country Music.” You’ll get a chance to hang with both Libby and Connie Sue this Christmas.

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How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical
Fox Theatre, December 7-12

This musical Grinch is, of course, based on the beloved 1957 children’s book by Dr. Seuss. Still, the songs you’ll recognize, such as “Welcome Christmas” and “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” come from the 1966 animated TV special directed by the great Chuck Jones and featuring the vocal stylings of Boris Karloff and Thurl Ravenscroft. 

In the Broadway production coming to the Fabulous Fox, Max the Dog narrates the story. It runs for 85 minutes with no intermission.

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Alexis Hauk has written and edited for numerous newspapers, alt-weeklies, trade publications and national magazines including Time, the AtlanticMental Floss, Uproxx and Washingtonian magazine. Having grown up in Decatur, Alexis returned to Atlanta in 2018 after a decade living in Boston, Washington, D.C., New York City and Los Angeles. By day, she works in health communications. By night, she enjoys covering the arts and being Batman.

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