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12 Austin shows you've got to see this Christmas, including 2 'Nutcrackers' and a Scrooge

Michael Barnes
Austin 360
Ballet Austin's "The Nutcracker" is back in business this year.

Last year, the pandemic robbed the holidays of much merriment.

Family gatherings postponed or canceled. Public festivities shut down. Shopping confined at times to digital offerings.

For some of us, it also meant doing without the seasonal performing arts. 

Yes, Ballet Austin released a grand and gorgeous film of "The Nutcracker" in 2020. 

For those of us, however, who already spend too much time in front of screens, film can't offer the sensual or social freedom associated with live performance.

Pandemic protocols still prevail this holiday season — always bring along your vaccination card or recent proof of negative status, as well as a mask.

Blissfully, Ballet Austin's glorious "The Nutcracker" is bounding back into the theater this month. So are many other annual Austin performing arts rites.

We offer 12 of them in no particular order, along with pointed reasons to attend. I plan to feast on as many as possible.

1. Ballet Austin's 'The Nutcracker'

Only one dance spells so much seasonal cheer for many Americans. Russian in origin, Russian-American in translation, it has held a central role during our holidays since the middle of the past century. The Tchaikovsky score alone is a soundtrack for countless holiday occasions.

Ballet Austin stages an opulent rendering at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, attended each year by tens of thousands of guests, many of them quite young. More than 20 full-time dancers are joined onstage by dozens of Ballet Austin Academy members and a few celebrated local guests.

Artistic director Stephen Mills keeps his priorities straight. He plays lightly with the comedy of the party and fantasy scenes, as well as the brief, ecstatic appearance by Mother Ginger. Yet the big-time dancing is saved for the snowy scenes that close Act I, and the virtuoso showcases of Act II.

More information: Dec. 4-23, Long Center for the Performing Arts, balletaustin.org.

Zach Theatre's "A Christmas Carol" comes back this winter with leading man Marc Pouhé returning as Scrooge.

2. 'A Christmas Carol' at Zach Theatre

Charles Dickens' novella about the miserly Scrooge and the loving Cratchit family — which some literary critics think introduced the modern meaning of Christmas — has been adapted in thousands of ways.

None of them resemble director Dave Steakley's multi-splendored, ethnically diverse theatrical reworking. He has added songs from a wide range of heritages and attracted top talent, while ignoring some staid theatrical casting customs. 

More:Austin's performing arts giants are back onstage — will the box office follow?

This year, leading man Marc Pouhé returns in the role of Scrooge, which the potent performer made his own the year before the pandemic.

More information: Nov. 24-Jan. 2, Topfer Theatre at Zach Theatre, zachtheatre.org

3. 'The Messiah' from Austin Symphony

Historically slated for the Easter season, Handel's oratorio migrated to Christmas in part because of its joyful "Hallelujah Chorus."

Austin Symphony, which will provide the underlying Tchaikovsky tunes for Ballet Austin's "The Nutcracker," teams with Chorus Austin to perform this masterpiece for one night only at Riverbend Centre.

I recently listened to the 1982 recording conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. For me, "The Messiah" has lost none of its luster. And although I automatically hum the tenor and bass parts, note that this particular staging at Riverbend Centre is not the "sing-along" variety, an experience that can be fun, too.

More information: Dec. 7, Riverbend Centre, austinsymphony.org.

"Conspirare Christmas," sung at the Long Center this year, combines solo voices with choral sounds for everything from medieval chants to recent pop songs.

4. 'Conspirare Christmas'

This is an absolutely singular Austin event. Visionary artistic director Craig Hella Johnson and guest artists — this year Isaac Cates and Ordained — seamlessly weave together heartfelt songs about courage and love. The good feelings can last all year.

Some of those songs relate directly to the holiday season, but more often than not, they are taken from pop, Broadway, jazz, rock or world music. Johnson is particularly good at slowing down familiar melodies to invite completely new emotional responses to the lyrics.

More information: Dec. 6, Long Center for the Performing Arts, conspirare.org.

5. 'The Precious Present: In Love and Light'

Tapestry Dance is one of those precious Austin jewels that deserves a hotter spotlight. During past holiday seasons, the company, under the leadership of Acia Gray, staged “Of Mice & Music” to an original score that included Tchaikovsky variations played by a jazz band.

Look who stars in this completely new community-spanning holiday show, which comes at just the right time: Spoken word poet Zell Miller III; vocalists Nagavalli and Mohammed Firoozi; modern/contemporary dancers Sharon Marroquin, Jun Shen and Andrea Ariel, along with Austin newcomer Francisco Graciano; bharatanatyam master Anuradha Naimpally; local flamenco legend Olivia Chacon; flow artist Kelly Bach; as well as Jeremy Arnold and Gray reviving jazz tap dance legacy.

Were those treats not enough, we get to see longtime local dancer China Smith, whose Ballet Afrique academy and troupe will present a version of "The Nutcracker" to arrangements by Duke Ellington.

More information: Dec. 9-12, Long Center's Rollins Studio Theatre, thelongcenter.org.

6. Austin Chamber Music Center's 'A Charlie Brown Christmas'

If you like the delicately jazzy Vince Guaraldi tunes from the holiday TV special, you'll adore this annual concert. Michele Schumann from the Austin Chamber Music Center takes the piano part in a jazz trio rendition.

"A recent office discussion about great Christmas albums hit an unconquerable peak when pianist Vince Guaraldi’s 1965 classic 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' was mentioned," the American-Statesman's music writers pointed out in 2019. "Perhaps it’s because the instrumental approach bypasses any era-specific designation that famous singers give to holiday classics; these piano-centered renditions still feel timeless."

More information: Dec. 12, Stateside Theater, austintheatre.org.

"Hip Hop Nutcracker" comes to Bass Concert Hall in Austin this holiday season.

7. 'Hip Hop Nutcracker'

This touring show is a new addition to the Austin holiday calendar. A dance spectacle set to Tchaikovsky’s music, it was created by Jennifer Weber, a heralded hip-hop artist based in New York and Los Angeles.

She teams up with a DJ, a violinist and MC Kurtis Blow, one of hip-hop’s founders.

"The story is centered around a holiday party in New York City, where Maria-Clara's parents are fighting," reports Dance Dish Media, a dance journalism site. "Drosselmeyer casts a spell and sends her and the Nutcracker on a magical journey back to the 1980s to the Brooklyn nightclub on New Year’s Eve where her parents first met."

More information: Nov. 23, Bass Concert Hall, texasperfromingarts.org.

8. 'Miracle on 34th Street Classic Radiocast'

Penfold Theatre Company was founded to provide fresh performances for the northern arc of our metro area of 2 million people. Yet they roam freely around Central Texas. This show will appear in Round Rock and Austin.

The players at the fictional KPNF radio station, which in the past staged a version of "It's a Wonderful Life," take on another holiday movie classic, "Miracle on 34th Street." Using dozens of character voices and live foley sound effects, they tell of Kris Kringle, the sweet Macy’s mascot put on trial for claiming to be the real Santa Claus.

Former Austin Chronicle arts editor Robert Faires is part of the tip-top cast.

More information: Dec. 9-18, various locations, penfieldtheatre.org.

Austin Gay Men's Chorus will perform a holiday concert with a cheeky title, "Celebrate the Holigays."

9. 'Celebrate the Holigays'

Transformed under artistic director Daniel Arredondo, the Austin Gay Men's Chorus, made up of gay men and their allies, demands respect. In recent years, it has earned mine.

Arredondo promises a few seasonal surprises, including some of the chorus’ popular video shows. “During the shutdown, our virtual series kept the chorus together and kept our voices strong,” he says. “We’re excited to finally share some of those songs with a live audience.”

More information: Dec. 3-5, St. Martin's Lutheran Church, austingaymenschorus.org.

10. Metamorphosis Dance Ensemble's 'The Nutcracker'

Several Central Texas dance troupes and academies present versions of "The Nutcracker" each year. I hold a soft spot in my heart for this one from Metamorphosis Dance Ensemble.  

Guest artists from Ballet Austin join this Round Rock-based dance ensemble, which has produced full-time dancers for troupes such as Washington Ballet and Atlanta Ballet.

In this rendition — somewhat like "Hip Hop Nutcracker" at Bass — Clara is a young adult who must choose between love and a worldly aunt who widens her horizons on a global holiday.

More information: Nov. 19-21, Boyd Vance Theater, nutcracker2021.eventbrite.com.

The hilarious Jaston Williams appears in "Blood and Holly," based on seasonal memories memories from his childhood.

11. 'Blood and Holly'

All you need to know about this new show is that it was written and will be performed by peerless Jaston Williams, who lives in Lockhart and has kept this region — and America — laughing for a long time.

Best known for the "Greater Tuna" series, Williams is beyond creative, and he has put together past solo shows based on his own life, especially his hair-raising West Texas childhood.

In "Blood and Holly" — the title alone gives you a hint of his humor — Williams recalls his family Christmas get-togethers as being an "odd mix of 'Babes in Toyland' with occasional detours through Franco’s Spain."

More information: Dec. 17-18, Stateside Theater, austintheatre.org.

12. Two from Austin Playhouse

One of the city's most reliable theater companies is once again without a home base. Nothing, however, keeps Austin Playhouse down for long.

It will produce two seasonal special events: Ginna Hoben's "The Twelve Dates of Christmas," a solo show that offers a modern alternatives to the standards of the holiday season, and Bernadette Nason's "Stealing Baby Jesus," featuring stories of holiday adventures from her recent memoir. 

They will run in rep at Trinity Street Playhouse this December.

More information: austinplayhouse.com.

Michael Barnes writes about the people, places, culture and history of Austin and Texas. He can be reached at mbarnes@statesman.com.