Holiday Confections

Black Nativity As a newcomer to the Cities, I heard stories about this show bordering on the mythic; a critic at this paper once called it "holy." Indeed, this song-and-dance revue has some wonderfully surprising elements, most of all a seriously female sensibility. For example, how many times have you seen Christ's birth--and I mean the actual labor--portrayed in art, much less onstage in dance form? Still, I found it disconcerting that nearly everyone in the audience was white, while of course everyone onstage was black ("Welcome to Minnesota," you might say). Like an uncommunicative lover who only acknowledges you when you pack to go, the audience only showed enthusiasm when each song ended, and at the curtain call. It's too bad, because the cast does its energetic and heartfelt damnedest to get us moving, especially large-lunged veterans T. Mychael Rambo, Kathryn Gagnon, and Joe Carter. My companion, who'd seen the show years earlier at Penumbra's regular theater, mourned the loss of that intimate venue ("You could smell the sweat!") and complained that the sound was lost in the rafters of the Fitzgerald Theater. It's great that this show has grown to demand a bigger space, but I wonder if anything has been lost in the move away from home. Through December 29 at Fitzgerald Theater; 10 E. Exchange St., St. Paul; 209-1221. (Kate Sullivan)

Ballet of the Dolls's The Nutcracker? With the commercial institutionalization of drag culture, what could be a more traditional Christmas treat than a gender subversion of The Nutcracker? The Dolls's nevertheless sly reworking involves a vampish New York society divorcée (Kevin McCormick)--check out her Warhol portrait on the penthouse walls--and the sexual awakening of her daughter Marie. Marie's Uncle, as played by Dolls choreographer Myron Johnson, looks like an undead Liberace; the party guests are a gaggle of ghoulishly thin women, cheeks in-sucked, diamonds wagging front and center. (That these talented, superslender dancers might blow away in a strong breeze is, one supposes, a coincidence.) When Momma steals Marie's young consort--no one is more woman than a man in a leopard skin dress--Marie flees to a dream world of Barbie and Ken, and Rats who dance like the zombies in the "Thriller" video. Last year's second-act parade of queer iconography (Streisand, Minnelli, et al) has been jettisoned for some "exotic" dancing: Latin, Chinese, Arabian, Caribbean. It's an improvement, and yet another clever dig at the much-loved conceits of this ballet warhorse. From the ever-changing costumes and Barbie dioramas to the catty, Suessian voiceover and wunderbar seasonal sound design, the Dolls deliver a Christmas masterpiece. Through January 5 at the Loring Playhouse, 1633 Hennepin, Mpls.; 332-1619. (Michael Tortorello)

Let Heaven and Nature Sing This show takes several serious risks, most of all the casting of developmentally disabled actors to tell the story of life in an institution --the Minnesota School for the Feeble-Minded and the Colony for Epileptics--in the 1940s. Before you turn off, let me assure you that it's got things to teach us smart-ass "normal" folks. And if you think about it, maybe the casting wasn't such a gamble: These actors are intelligent, knowingly funny, more relaxed, and (naturally) much more convincing than their nondisabled counterparts who try to play retarded.

The play documents maltreatment of "inmates," focusing on two young people who fall in love and must break rules at every turn to see each other. Residents weren't allowed to speak to each other (though of course they did), had no privacy, and were sometimes coerced into sterilization and lobotomy ("These people have no rights!" blurted one astonished audience member). But there's also a lot of humor here; my favorite was Roy (Larry Hanson), a cowboy in his own mind who reminded me of an easygoing, gentle cousin to Lyle Lovett, especially when he sang "Don't Fence Me In"--which could be this production's theme song. Through December 29 at the Great American History Theatre (east building of the Science Museum), 10th and Cedar, St. Paul; 292-4323. (Sullivan)

A Servant's Christmas I'm not sure why this show is on its way to becoming a holiday tradition at the History Theatre. It's got a promising premise: A young girl comes to work for a turn-of-the-century Summit Avenue family at Christmas, and tries to conceal her Jewish identity from them and the other servants. Unfortunately, the script is banal and predictable; the characters, pure boilerplate--the uptight spinster governess; the crusty old-world housekeeper with a quaint accent and a heart of gold ("You'll shpoil your dinner!"); the emotionally distant patriarch; the spunky gal who turns everybody's lives upside-down. As the servant girl, Ann Schulman is plenty charismatic, but fades into whiny bewilderment and coarse line readings (remember Roseanne in her first couple years on TV?). The rest of the cast is fair (Peter Farley as the butler seems the most relaxed onstage, and also the funniest). But as my friend commented, this play doesn't have much more to say than, "Hey, Jews are okay to have as servants!" Through December 29 at the Music Box Theatre, 14th and Nicollet, Mpls.; 292-4323. (Sullivan)

Another Mix-Up in the Manger, or: What Child Is This? A note to critics from Dudley Riggs' Brave New Workshop stated that this show intends to "amuse and/or offend" everyone in the audience. It accomplishes that task admirably--in fact, the night I went the house seemed permeated with an unmistakable air of creative rebirth. This show is truly funny, with a deadpan disgust for the season. And I was pleased to be, if not offended, at least put off by a particularly gratuitous bit about the new "Crack Baby" doll. I mean, I want to be offended by satire! The best part about this show is its fast pace and clipped bits--if a skit's only worth half a minute, that's what it gets (there are over 30 in all). My favorite piece was a bitchy debate among the Three Wise Men about their gifts for Christ: "What the hell is myrrh?" "Screw it, I'm writing him a check." Of course, you can't please all the people all the time (a serious song about illegitimate children and a holiday rendition of REM's "It's the End of the World as We Know It" didn't work for me). But a gray-haired lady nearby moaned throughout the show--and I do believe they were moans of pleasure. Through January 4 at Dudley Riggs' Brave New Workshop, 2605 Hennepin Ave., Mpls.; 332-6620. (Sullivan)

Martini & Olive's Holiday Inferno Funny, disturbing, uncanny, painful, spangled and tangled and, well, hooked on a feeling: Martini and Olive (Grant Richey and Judy Heneghan) are a duo of singer/"dancers" who perform a cabaret revue of the worst of '70s white-folks pop, punctuated with the sort of talent-show dance routines (with help from the Swizzle Stick Dancers) that will forever haunt my own memory. They free-associate songs we'd happily forgotten ("Sing a Song," "I'd Like to Teach the World to Sing") and do more costume changes than Sonny and Cher. I thought my sister and I were the only ones who'd made up our own cringe-inducing choreography to A Chorus Line back in the day, or appreciated the disco version of the Star Wars theme. (Though I could have done without the long Meatloaf "Paradise by the Dashboard Light" section.) Yes, the '70s are old-hat as satire material, but I've never seen anyone capture not only the trappings but the spirit of my childhood, an era that for Martini & Olive--and me--was composed of endless amateur shows, musical theater fantasies, terrible songs, and tender hearts. One question: Where was the Xanadu theme? Through December 31 at Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater, 810 W. Lake St, Mpls.; 825-8949. (Sullivan)

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