GLTF and CPH offer divergent gifts

A Christmas Carol Through Dec. 23 Great Lakes Theater Festival Ohio Theatre 1511 Euclid Ave. 216.241.6000 Tickets: $28-$59 A Christmas Story Through Dec. 20 Cleveland Play House 8500 Euclid Ave. 216.795.7000 Tickets: $64

There are many ways for Northeastern Ohioans to actualize their holiday season. First and foremost, there's the prophet Bing, tapping his pipe and bestowing his magical baritone rendition of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" to win World War II and forever defining our Yuletide yearnings.

Then there are all those churches, malls, the Internet and, for those with cultural aspirations, live theater. Our two behemoth emporiums of the dramatic arts, Cleveland Play House and Great Lakes Theater Festival, span the continents and a century in their search for lucrative wintertime celebration.

For 21 years, Great Lakes has depended on Charles Dickens for their realization of Christmas ghosts and foggy redemption. The Play House turned to the 1983 movie A Christmas Story to give us an Americana holiday as if drawn by Norman Rockwell and broadcast on old Philco radios.

At the center of both shows is the idealization of the perfect mom and pop. In Great Lakes' A Christmas Carol, the parents are the personification of Victorian upper class, Royal Doulton figurines given flesh and blood. In the Play House's A Christmas Story, the parents are the lovable 1930s know-it-all bumblers found in yellowing Blondie cartoon strips.

Experiencing A Christmas Carol with a junior-high-school audience makes us aware how affecting its giant, ominous Ghost of Christmas Future puppet and other gothic trimmings remain after two decades. One could almost sense hundreds of youthful jaws drop as the walls broke apart to reveal the mammoth, jolly Ghost of Christmas Present. Even the most rock-laden sensibility must yield to the irresistible tug of the show's brilliant music-box deployment of Victorian Christmas tunes.

For the adults in the house, the most plangent aspect is what could be the last onstage mating of two of our town's lustrous co-stars. In her striped hooped skirt and cavalcade of curls, Laura Perrotta seems ready to lead her tykes in "Getting to Know You." Andrew May, wearing a velvet maroon robe, has the dash and mellifluous charm of long-dead matinee idols. When May departs for California, our city will lose more than a little of its artistic panache.

If A Christmas Carol is our evergreen, A Christmas Story is more akin to an aluminum tree that has corroded in its five-year existence at the Play House. The elements that remain fresh are the daffy, father-knows-best charisma of Charles Kartali's Old Man paired with the warmth of Elizabeth Ann Townsend's perpetually meatloaf-making mother. Their Christmas-morning snuggle on the sofa seems the only genuine moment of holiday reverie. The fantasy sequences dealing with childhood terrors, Little Orphan Annie decoder rings and little boys who constantly want go "wee-wee" have been left under the tree too long, like stale cookies left for Santa.

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