Deck the Performance Halls

Hold that mistletoe and pause that dreidel; it's time for a peripatetic look at the holiday season, brought to you by local theater, dance and classical music organizations. Let's start onstage. The season opened last weekend when Scrooge and the Cratchit Family returned to the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in A Christmas Carol: The Musical. The last time this show was in Tampa, it was only a one-act; now it's been expanded to full-length, two-act size and includes more songs and drama than ever. It continues through Dec. 2. Can't make it all the way across the Bay into Tampa? You'll be pleased to learn that an entirely different adaptation, simply titled A Christmas Carol, comes to Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater on Dec. 10 and 11; it features sets that resemble painted Christmas cards, and includes traditional carols of the season. One way or another, you will have your Dickens.

But wait, you say, enough with the same old Yuletide chestnuts. Surely there's room for innovation, for something sparkling and unfamiliar. Well, try the Gorilla Theatre Dec. 13-30. "'Tis the Season to Do Folly" is Aubrey Hampton's brand-new original whodunit about the strange disappearance of guests from the King Maple Lodge in Vermont. Magician/detective John Calvert is called upon to perform some illusions, but the solving of the case depends on maid Sioban O'Flaherty. Note the vanishing Christmas tree balls every time another guest is dispatched. Getting back to Christmas past, "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" is perhaps the most famous of holiday poems. Now American Stage is bringing it to life (Dec. 14-30) as an exploration of the life of Santa Claus. There'll be music and merriment for both children and adults, but watch out for errant sugarplums, not to mention eggnog-happy reindeer.

If Christmas to you means vocal music above all, you'll find quite a few opportunities this season to satisfy your omnivorous ears. First, there's the Tampa Bay Children's Chorus Holiday Concert on Dec. 7 at TBPAC; four choirs are included and the fare is inspirational. A day later (Dec. 8), it's the Heralds of Harmony Holiday Concert, also at TBPAC; what the kids didn't do, the adults probably will. From Dec. 8-23, A Rockin' Christmas is playing at TBPAC; it's an energetic rock 'n' roll cabaret musical featuring favorite songs from the 1950s and '60s as well as newer tunes. Look for local star Kissy Simmons Vaughan in her last local appearance before joining the national tour of The Lion King. On Dec. 9, the Gulf to Bay Chorus of Sweet Adelines International comes to the Palladium Theater to present Holidays Around the World; special guests include the Clearwater High School Chorus. Then on Dec. 16, the Tampa Bay Gay Men's Chorus takes the Palladium stage to present "Fa La La La La," a collection of festive Yuletide favorites. Don't be surprised if you hear some traditional texts set to tunes from favorite TV shows. On Dec. 28 and 29, the Florida Orchestra presents highlights from Handel's Messiah at TBPAC and the Mahaffey Theater; Richard Zielinski is guest conductor, and the Master Chorale of Tampa Bay chimes in potently.

The holidays also inevitably mean special orchestral and chamber concerts. For example, on Dec. 14-17 at TBPAC, the Mahaffey and REH, former Boston Pops arranger Richard Hayman conducts the Florida Orchestra in A Magical Christmas Special; pieces include "Parade of the Wooden Soldiers," "Winter Wonderland" and "A Merry Christmas Sing-Along." On Dec. 15, the Summit Orchestra presents A Largo Christmas at the Largo Cultural Center; then, on Dec. 21 at 8 p.m., the Bay Lyric Chamber Players present a "Happy Holidays" concert at the Palladium. There's even opera this holiday season: On Dec. 1 at the Palladium, the Florida Lyric Opera will present Giancarlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors, about a young boy who meets the Three Wise Men. This production commemorates the 50th anniversary of the opera and the 90th birthday of its author.

And then of course, there's The Nutcracker. This ubiquitous ballet makes its first local appearance on Dec. 2, when the Florida Gulf Coast Ballet presents excerpts at the Largo Cultural Center. Then on Dec. 7-9, The Florida Orchestra joins the Miami City Ballet at Ruth Eckerd Hall for George Balanchine's The Nutcracker, featuring Balanchine's masterful choreography. Expect a smaller scale sensation on Dec. 8 at the Palladium, when the Suncoast Dance Academy presents its Nutcracker with a Florida twist. Then back to REH on Dec. 14 for The Chocolate Nutcracker, wherein 100 local children join with professional dancers who move to the sounds of Harlem, Brazil and Cuba. Things get frosty on Dec. 22 and 23, when The Florida Orchestra joins the Stars of the Russian State Ice Ballet at TBPAC for The Nutcracker on Ice. Expect gorgeous costumes, elaborate set design, and spinning, spiraling dancers.

And now for the hard-to-categorize: the Sonos Handbell Ensemble, which will be presenting a Holiday Special Concert on Dec. 2 at the Palladium Theater. This 12-member ensemble plays 68 bells, covering more than five octaves; listen as these things are rung, slammed, plucked, malleted, shaken, damped, bounced and more. Another hard-to-pigeonhole Christmas event is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra in Christmas Eve & Other Stories at TBPAC on Dec. 29; these musicians combine the stirring elegance of a classical orchestra with the power and fury of a hard rock band surrounded by stunning lighting. Composer/lyricist Paul O'Neill is at the helm. Apparently, you have to see this one to understand it.

Finally, if late December means not Christmas but Kwanzaa to you, you'll probably want to join the Kwanzaa Feast at the Palladium on Dec. 26. This celebration includes special performances of drama, drumming, dance, make-and-take crafts, not to mention a tasty feast. Hey, as long as we're on the subject, have you noticed how the Palladium is becoming more and more a precious community resource?

Now, about that dreidel ...

Tribute to Craig Alpaugh. On Saturday, Dec. 1, Gorilla Theatre presents a benefit performance of scenes from the plays of the late Craig Alpaugh. Author Alpaugh was managing director of the Gorilla until his death on Nov. 29, 2000; earlier this year he was posthumously named the Tampa Bay area's "Best Playwright" in the Weekly Planet's Best of the Bay issue.

It's a Tribute, Damnit" will be performed on Dec. 1 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10; proceeds go to benefit Alpaugh's family.

Mark E. Leib can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 305.