City Paper is not for tourists
It’s that most wonderful time of the year, when Arts Desk offers readers a side-by-side consumer report of a much beloved, or at least much performed, holiday show. The legacy began with Messiah Smackdown!, continued with Choral Christmas Smackdown!, A Christmas Carol Smackdown!, and last year, Nutcracker Smackdown! This year we turn to that venerable tradition, the Christmas cabaret, where theater groups put on silly holiday-themed song and dance numbers, like the kind you see for free at your kid’s elementary school, but with grown-ups and not for free. Our contestants this year are Signature Theatre’s Holiday Follies and MetroStage’s A Broadway Christmas Carol. Which probably should have gone in 2012’s Christmas Carol Smackdown, but it has singing in it, so it counts. Let’s see how they compare:
Musical variety: MetroStage can’t be accused of false advertising. A Broadway Christmas Carol is exactly what it sounds like: a bunch of showtunes reworked into a sort of coherent narrative of Dickens’ classic holiday tale. So it might be jarring to see Scrooge break out into high kicks and jazz hands, but maybe not, if you’re a fan of musicals. I’m not. Nothing against them, I’m just not well versed in the genre. So I only recognized one song, “It’s the Hard Knock Life,” which turns out to have been from some Broadway show in the ’70s before it was a Jay-Z song. If you’re into soft-shoe and puns, this is definitely for you. Otherwise, Signature’s mix of old and new, goofy and maudlin, cheesy and slightly-less-cheesy holiday tunes offers more for the non-Gleeks in the family. Point: Signature
Suburbanness: Both shows are in Virginia, and some D.C. residents can get squeamish about venturing into the land of defense contractors and tall buildings and affordable restaurants. In terms of accessibility, neither is very public transport-friendly—-both would require a bus or taxi from the nearest metro—-though MetroStage’s Old Town Alexandria location is closer and, in theory, bikeable. Signature is in Shirlington which, despite having a Cakelove and a Busboys and Poets and a movie theater that shows foreign-language films, isn’t fooling anyone about being a mini-mall. Point: MetroStage
Dad humor: The unabashed corniness of MetroStage’s Christmas Carol seeps into every element of the production, from the ghost of Christmas present (who comes gift-wrapped) to the horrid satin vests. The wit in Signature’s Holiday Follies is a little less forced, though just barely. Is a “Text Me Merry Christmas” song dedicated to millennials (who were nowhere in the audience) really necessary? Like satin vests and family bonding, for the rest of the month at least, the answer is yes. Point: Signature
War on Christmas: Neither is particularly religious, though MetroStage’s Christmas Carol hews closer to the Gospel message that if you’re a sinner, the Holy Spirit will haunt you until you repent and buy someone a turkey. Signature’s production is more ecumenical, as it includes what must have been a terrible Adam Sandler Saturday Night Live skit that I erased from my memory, a version of the dreidel song as performed by Don McLean. A nice gesture, but I don’t think it does Jews any favors. Point: MetroStage
Holiday spirits: If either one of these sounds like something you’d need a drink or three to enjoy (sitting through both shows sober was enough to make this reviewer question his straight-edge ethos), you’re out of luck at MetroStage. Your best chance of sneaking in that bottle of peppermint schnapps is by ingesting it before the show, which of course we wouldn’t recommend if you’re driving. Signature’s Ark theater, on the other hand, has a little shelf built into every row for you to rest your red plastic party cups, which Signature welcomes you to bring inside, and encourages you to get up and refill at the bar at any point in the show. Which nearly everyone, except me and a young woman in a hijab, did. And after enough refills, nothing—-given a selection from Bette Midler’s Christmas album, I mean nothing—-failed to entertain that crowd. Final point and winner: Signature
A Broadway Christmas Carol continues through December 28 at MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria. $50. Holiday Follies continues through December 23 at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington. $35.