If the composers Peter Tchaikovsky and George Handel were alive, they’d be very wealthy men. Every winter, their music — specifically Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” and Handel’s “Messiah” — blankets the land. They epitomize Christmas for many people. Ditto Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”
While Tchaikovsky, Handel and Dickens are gone, they left us a legacy of work that forms the core of wildly varied Christmastime arts and entertainment. Around the Valley, you can easily see several Nutcrackers and Messiahs, myriad children in Christmas pageants, ukuleles strumming holiday tunes and Alice Cooper’s Christmas Pudding, featuring Santa Claus, rock ‘n’ roll…and a guillotine.
Here are some of the highlights of holiday entertainment in the Valley of the Sun, 2016. Many of these are incredibly popular, so you might want to buy your tickets now.
Dancing Christmas: Nutcrackers and Snow Queen
The New York Times labeled Ballet Arizona’s production “one of the top three Nutcrackers outside New York.” So expect great dancing and spectacular sets and costumes — unfortunately, they won’t use live music this year. The company will perform on various dates between Friday, December 9, and Saturday, December 24, at Phoenix Symphony Hall. For times and ticket prices go to balletaz.org.
If you don’t want to leave the East Valley, check out Ballet Etudes’ “Nutcracker,” a showcase for young talent and a heartfelt artistic experience. The company will perform its 30th anniversary production of the fabled ballet at two locations—Chandler Center for the Arts from November 25 to December 4, and the Mesa Arts Center from December 9 to December 11. They will feature live music courtesy of the Chandler Symphony. For details, visit balletetudes.net.
A modern-dance alternative to “The Nutcracker,” “Snow Queen” became an annual holiday event after its first staging by choreographer Frances Smith Cohen more than 25 years ago. Center Dance Ensemble at the Herberger Theater Center in downtown Phoenix performs the nonreligious story-in-dance annually. This year it runs on various dates between Tuesday, December 6, and Wednesday, December 18. For details, see herbergertheater.org.
Singing Christmas: Messiah and other vocalizations
The Phoenix Symphony really, really wants you to hear Handel’s Messiah. Arizona’s largest-funded performing arts organization will present its version of the enduring Christmas classic at five different locations between Wednesday, December 7, and Sunday, December 11. The venues are: Wednesday, December 7, Scottsdale Center for the Arts; Thursday, December 8, Camelback Bible Church; Friday, December 9, Mesa Arts Center’s Ikeda Theatre; Saturday, December 10, Camelback SDA Church; and Sunday, December 11, Pinnacle Presbyterian Church. For times, ticket prices and addresses, visit phoenixsymphony.org.
The Phoenix Symphony also knows that not everyone wants to listen to 224-year-old music that requires you stand when the choir sings “Hallelujah.” For those folks, it will play a holiday pops program from Friday, December 2, to Sunday, December 4, at Phoenix Symphony Hall. The concert features familiar Christmas songs performed by singers Gary Mauer and Christiane Noll, plus the audience in a holiday sing-along. Details are available at the Phoenix Symphony website.
Finally, if you’re hankering to extend the holiday feeling via classical music, the Phoenix Symphony will host its annual New Year’s Eve Celebration on Saturday, December 31. The event includes Strauss waltzes and a complimentary glass of champagne.
Prefer a different kind of orchestra? Try American Songbook singer Dave Seabaugh and his 25-piece big band on Saturday, December 17, at the Mesa Arts Center. Although the crooner’s first Christmas show, it will be a big production, including Christmas music arrangements just for this show. Learn more at mesaartscenter.com.
If a rock band suits your tastes, you live in the right town: Alice Cooper blends elements of Halloween with the joys of December holidays in his “Christmas Pudding.” Korn and the Gin Blossoms will be there, but it is Cooper’s own Hollywood Vampires, featuring Johnny Depp and Joe Perry, that’s sure to get the blood pumping. It happens Saturday, December 3, at the Celebrity Theatre. Go to celebritytheatre.com.
Acting Christmas: The Dickens, you say
The ultimate holiday story — and savior of Christmas as we know it — Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” tells a tale of greed vs. compassion, and the need to look at our lives as more than self-serving trips through random phenomena. The Hale Centre Theatre in Gilbert makes an annual business of presenting Scrooge, Tiny Tim and the others in a much-loved staging. This year’s production runs Thursday, December 1, to Saturday, December 24. Go to haletheatrearizona.com.
If you find “A Christmas Carol” a little too sentimental for your taste, you can still enjoy the story as transmuted by former writers for “The Colbert Report.” “Twist Your Dickens” plays the Phoenix Theatre Wednesday, November 30, to Saturday, December 24. What is it? Imagine Dickens’ story told with smart-aleck satire and audience interaction. Go to phoenixtheatre.com for details.
In non-Dickensian stagecraft, the award-winning Childsplay presents a play called “A Very Hairy Javelina Holiday.” Sounds as if someone finally made winter holidays relevant to the Sonoran Desert! It runs from Saturday, November 19, to Saturday, December 24, at Tempe Center for the Arts. Check out chilsplayaz.org for more information.
Clay Aiken returns to the stage
Clay Aiken’s epitaph may be “That Guy from American Idol,” but his near win let him rack up 6 million albums sold and 11 sold out U.S. tours. For his “Christmas with Clay Aiken” show at Chandler Center for the Arts show, the former congressional candidate will be accompanied by a 22-piece orchestra. He reportedly ends his Christmas tours with his signature holiday song, “Don’t Save It All for Christmas Day.” Get tickets at chandlercenter.org.
Holiday miscellany: Anything you can think of
Mesa Arts Center wins this year’s award for most unusual holiday offerings.
Want ukuleles playing holiday tunes? You got it. “Christmas with the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain” arrives Sunday, December 4.
Choirs and orchestras converge at the MAC Friday, December 2, and Saturday, December 3, for “Good Will Toward Men.”
Think “Christmas” and immediately think “children”? Mesa Arts Center has something for you Thursday, December 1, to Sunday, December 11, when it presents the East Valley Children’s Theatre in the comedy “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”
Is jazz such a constant in your life that even Christmas means jazz? Try saxophonist Dave Koz’s Christmas Tour at the MAC on Wednesday, Dec. 14.
Finally, a special holiday event can occur in every Valley home that contains a piano, a keyboard or a guitar. It’s called “Gather round and sing a carol.” Admission is free.
– Kenneth LaFave, The Entertainer! Magazine / Edited for Phoenix.org