On the Boards, through Dec 18
I have something to confess—I’m a little bit of a Grinch. Not because I hate joy and gifts, but because my family didn’t have too many traditions around Christmastime and, as an adult, I haven’t carried any holiday spirit with me. That’s why I found myself kind of surprised at the veritable Christmas cheer I felt while watching storied Seattle choreographer Donald Byrd’s Harlem Nutcracker teaser at On the Boards last weekend. The music! The dancing! The costumes! The fake snow falling from the rafters! The EMOTION! I finally understood the reason why people scrambled to the ballet every year to see the same Christmas story told over and over again: comfort.
The Harlem Nutcracker is Byrd's playful flip on Tchaikovsky's original Nutcracker, using music from Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington’s jazzy "Nutcracker Suite" as a jumping-off point to focus the story on a Black family in Harlem. Instead of revolving around a young girl, Byrd's version places a Black grandmother, Clara (Vania Bynum), at its center. She is celebrating her first Christmas after the death of her husband (Michael Blake). His spirit comes back as the Nutcracker, assisting her in warding off the Grim Reaper and welcoming family and friends into her holiday celebrations. It's a joyous portrayal of Black family and the Harlem Renaissance.
This performance at On the Boards is a long time in the making. Debuting back in 1996, the original production of Harlem Nutcracker ran every holiday season until 2000, and reached great critical heights but ultimately left Byrd bankrupt. Following community pleas to bring it back, he began rebuilding the show in 2019 at Spectrum Dance Theater with company artists. The version Seattle audiences get to see this December is the full first act and the second act minus 20 minutes. He's saving the final bit of the story for the show's official debut next year. At my matinee showing, unfortunately, one of the performers got sick mid-show and so I was unable to see most of the second half of the production. However! The fun I had up until point demands everyone go see this new Christmas classic—it's pure love. JAS KEIMIG
ACT Theatre, through Dec 24
Dina Martina is back and just as unhinged as ever in her traditional holiday show. It's a mix of misremembered old standards, childlike glee, and meandering comedy monologues. This year, as every year, she comes to us with, as she puts it, “Rare holiday moments. By ‘rare’ I mean not fully cooked.”
The show verges on something of an assault on the audience, with mispronunciations and misunderstandings so abundant they seem to call out for constant correction (but do not give in to the temptation to participate in the show unless you are invited, lest you attract the hostess’ ire). Holiday songs are turned inside-out, abandoned halfway through, and fretted to within an inch of their life; stories of Christmasses past are warmly recalled, though the details suggest that something about them has gone horribly awry.
Dina’s ability to work the crowd is a pleasure to behold, simultaneously endearing and optimistic even while delivering the worst news—sort of like Ellen DeGeneres’s hapless routines back in the '90s. Dina’s physical comedy is also a treat, though sparingly employed; at one point, a visual joke involving a fur coat is as good as anything Steve Martin ever came up with.
Seattle old-timers have made a years-long habit of flocking to Dina’s holiday show, which has found a pleasant new home at ACT following the closure of Re-Bar. Calling the affair a “seasonal tradition” is perhaps underselling the weirdness of the night; “local rite of passage” might be more apt. MATT BAUME
Seattle Public Theater, through Dec 20
Christmastime is when we slow down and make time for tradition. It's when we gather with friends and family, take a closer look at everything we have in our lives, and appreciate those who've helped us make it through the ups and downs of another year. It's also when we watch a barefoot off-duty New York Cop singlehandedly take on a dozen greedy German crooks as they shoot up a coke-filled Christmas party at an LA high-rise while trying to steal $640 million in bearer bonds that are locked away in the building's impossible-to-open vault.
I had big expectations for A Very Die Hard Christmas. Like, blow the roof off the top of Nakatomi Plaza with a shitload of C-4 big. The 1988 action movie is my dearest Christmas tradition—I have watched it hundreds of times. Already three times this month! So I am very delighted to report that this locally produced musical interpretation, written by Jeff Shell and the Habit and directed by Mark Siano, was beyond my wildest imagination.
It had everything! Fist toes! A white tank top decaying at a hilariously unrealistic pace! A computer nerd cheering, "Oh my god, the quarterback is toast!" when a rocket launcher blows up an armored police vehicle! I felt like I was watching all the best parts of the movie—with all my favorite lines appropriately exaggerated the same way I hear them in my head—with 160 of my closest, most Die Hard-obsessed best friends.
Jason Marr was a perfect theatrical version of John McClane (the faces!) and Helen Roundhill played Holly Gennaro McClane with the horny energy we all know Bonnie Bedelia would've been able to pull off beautifully if the '80s weren't so stuffy about women owning their sexuality. (There is a song, there are hand gestures—Gennaro wants to fuck.) Stealing the show, though, was Rebecca Olson as Hans Gruber and Brandon Felker as Ellis. Oh, Ellis! His big, cocaine-fueled musical number is worth the price of admission alone. It is brilliant.
There were no Twinkies. That is my one complaint. Every annual Die Hard screening should include Twinkies. Put 'em in the lobby during intermission, next to the coffee and hot chocolate for a buck! I'd have bought two. MEGAN SELING
Royal Room, Dec 21-22
"Christmas Time Is Here" is the centerpiece, in my opinion, of the soundtrack for the masterpiece of American culture, A Charlie Brown Christmas. It was composed by the Bay Area jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. It first appeared on television on December 9, 1965. It forever married jazz with Peanuts, a comic strip by Charles Schulz. But the story of how Guaraldi's music and Schulz's characters came together is filled with accidents.
The Golden Gate Bridge figures into it. As does the jazz DJ Al "Jazzbo" Collins. As does a documentary about the black American baseball legend Willie Mays. The more you look into the story of the soundtrack of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the more the idea of a God with a master plan is erased and replaced by the story of cosmic chaos.
And from this chaos, which was there at the beginning of everything (and will be there at the end of it all), emerged the South Hudson Music Project in 2016. The point at which this "like-minded musical community" entered the world was the Royal Room in Columbia City. From this point it formed its reason for being in the world, which is to produce politically and artistically progressive performances. This is why its “A Charlie Brown Christmas” show must not be missed. For one, like the universe, it's free. But also because the musical community will reclaim the roots of this beautiful music, which are deeply American. The Charlie Brown show might be very white, but its Christmas music, composed by a white musician, is definitely Black. "Christmas Time Is Here," one of the most beautiful pieces of American art ever created, owes everything to the blues, to the African Mississippi Delta, which is now the sound of American culture. CHARLES MUDEDE