Friday, December 9, 2022

Reviews: Holiday Offerings Include a Nostalgic “A Child's Christmas in Wales” at the Irish Rep and a Bittersweet “Empire of Light” in Cinemas, as Well as Other Yuletide Suggestions


A Child's Christmas in Wales (c) Carol Rosegg

Theater: A Child's Christmas in Wales 
At the Irish Repertory Theater 

This is the sixth time in Irish Repertory Theatre’s history that they have presented Charlotte Moore’s adaptation of poet Dylan Thomas’ 1945 “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” a concert of Christmas songs by a company of six actors as they recite and act out his short story. I had seen the 2018 incarnation with Nicholas Barasch (so wonderful this season in the unsettling “The Butcher Boy” on the same stage) as the Thomas stand-in. This time we get Dan Macke (an understudy in “The Butcher Boy”) stepping in and he is equally ingratiating and winning in an “aw, gosh” kind of way, as he narrates his family traditions on a typical Christmas in Wales in the 1920s. The rest of the cast play multiple characters from this memory monologue, including Dylan’s parents, friends and many relatives. It is a corny, bear hug of show, with the majority of the runtime devoted to Christmas carols of yore. Repurposing the shell of the Penn Station set from “Chester Bailey,” now filled with Christmas trees and decoration as well as a piano serving as the show’s sole musical accompaniment (well, there are…whoops, no spoilers here and don't look at the picture), the ensemble unironically fills the theater with a warmth and sincerity that any unjaded New Yorker will embrace. The talented, colorblind cast includes Kerry Conte, Jay Aubrey Jones, Kylie Kuioka, and Ashley Robinson. Even if you think you’re allergic to the old-fashioned prose and optimistic point-of-view, it is certainly a welcome tonic to the generic and recycled holiday tales from Hallmark and Lifetime. A perfect seasonal outing for the whole family. 

Of course, there are many theatrical holiday offerings this year in New York. Here are some you might also enjoy: 

A Sherlock Carol (c) Evan Zimmerman

A Sherlock Carol (New World Stages). Making its return after premiering last year, you should definitely try to catch this satisfying mash-up of Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens, if not just for Isabel Keating’s cheeky performance in various roles alone. 

Into the Woods (On Broadway at the Hudson Theater). Not necessarily a holiday show, Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s fractured fairy tale musical feels like the perfect family show, even with its less-than-happily-ever-after second act. 

A Christmas Carol (On Broadway at the Nederlander Theatre). Like Patrick Stewart before him, Tony Award-winning actor Jefferson Mays shows off his thespian skills with this one-man Broadway show. The Charles Dickens novel was adapted by Mays, director Michael Arden and Susan Lyons. 

Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish (c) Jeremy Daniel

Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish (New World Stages). Tradition is a major theme to this classic musical that centers on Tevye, a Jewish milkman in the Russian shtetl of Anatevka, who tries to keep his family together at the start of the 20th century. This production, spoken mostly in Yiddish (with supertitles), is directed by Joel Grey. It is less sentimental than most productions of this classic musical by Joseph Stein, Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, but the joy in the big numbers is still magical and infectious.


Empire of Light (c) Searchlight Pictures

Film: Empire of Light 
In Cinemas 

Christmas in movies aren’t always happy. The first section of “Empire of Light” by writer director Sam Mendes (“Skyfall,” “1917”) is set during the holiday season of 1980 in a British seaside town and it focuses on lonely Hilary (Olivia Colman), who works at the Empire Cinema, currently playing the holiday appropriate (?) “The Blues Brothers” and “All That Jazz.” She doesn’t seem to like her job, especially with her lecherous boss, Mr. Ellis (Colin Firth), but things look up when Stephen (Michael Ward), a young black man, joins the staff. The two start a tentative friendship and ends up having an unexpected kiss on New Year’s Eve. The film is supposedly based on incidents in Mendes’ early life, and despite a nice nostalgic sheen to the proceedings, courtesy of veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins, by focusing on Hilary and her problems (she’s on Lithium, and we later find out why), the film doesn’t really coalesce into a satisfying watch. This is in no way the fault of Colman, whose brave performance reminds me of her Oscar-nominated performance last year in “The Lost Daughter” in that she doesn’t feel the need to make Hilary sympathetic for the audience to understand her circumstances. The film really should have focused on the projectionist Norman (Toby Jones, in his best performances in years), but Mendes may have wanted to avoid going into the “Cinema Paradiso” sentimental territory. Instead, we get a nice relationship between Hilary and Stephen that is cut short by plot turns that include a possible film premiere at the theater, Hilary’s medical condition as well as Stephen’s run-in with racist thugs. Maybe Mendes needed a co-writer to make his second screenplay feel less unwieldy. This is the second film I saw this year in which a broken-winged pigeon plays an important symbolic role (the other is Kelly Reichardt’s “Showing Up,” opening next year). But there are small joys throughout, mainly the beautiful Empire theater itself and an exceptional if atypically conventional score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Like in Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans,” the magic of film ultimately becomes a healing force in Mendes’ past. I wished he had focused more of his energy on that. 

Of course, there are many, more traditional holiday films premiering this year in theaters and on streaming. Here are some you might also enjoy: 

Spirited (c) Netflix

Spirited (on Netflix). Charles Dickens is very popular this year, and the best, new film version is the musical “Spirited,” with songs by “Dear Evan Hansen” composers Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. This film focuses on the lives of the famous ghosts as they choose the person to scare the Dickens out of each Christmas. The best performances are by Will Farrell as the Ghost of Christmas Present, with a little of his Buddy the Elf optimistic charm, and Octavia Spencer, who plays a love interest, something she rarely gets to be. 

The Hip Hop Nutcracker (on Disney+). This updated dance special is adapted from the popular stage show, and its biggest assets are guest appearances by rappers Kurtis Blow and Rev DMC as well as Mikhail Baryshnikov. And it’s less than an hour long. 

A Christmas Story Christmas (HBO Max). Peter Billingsley returns as a grown up Ralphie from the original “A Christmas Story” movie from 1983, this time going back to his family home on Cleveland Street with his own kids. Basically, a retread of everything that happened in the first movie, but if it ain’t broke… 

Violent Night (c) Universal Pictures

Violent Night (in Cinemas). David Harbour (Hopper from “Stranger Things”) plays Santa Claus, the real guy in the red suit, who’s a bit more jaded nowadays, until a kid on the nice list and her family get kidnapped. Who you gonna call? Definitely not for kids but, a lot more sincere than I expected.

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