The cast of Cincinnati Shakespeare Company’s “Every Christmas Story Ever Told”
Photo credit: Mikki Schaffner

The holiday season is defined by traditions. Last year, the Cincinnati region missed out on many of the most enduring traditions because of the pandemic. As live arts return, long-standing holiday performances focus on the joy of the season as always. After a long period with limited human connection, that focus resonates stronger this year.

For 30 years, Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park has contributed Howard Dallin's stage adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" to the region's holiday canon. Bruce Cromer has played Ebenezer Scrooge for 15 of those years. In 2020, the Playhouse initially hoped that pandemic-related restrictions would ease in time to keep that tradition going. When they didn’t, the team adapted, and Cromer starred in a one-man radio adaptation of the show.

This year's production returns to Playhouse’s Marx Theatre just in time to bid it farewell, along with several long-time staples of the holiday event. When the new Rouse Theatre opens to the public, the company will introduce a new adaptation of "A Christmas Carol." The recurring set, uniquely designed for the current stage and featuring lifts, trap doors and spinning towers, will retire. A new set will take advantage of the Rouse’s capabilities, including a fly gallery — a tower that allows the crew to move set pieces into the air, opening many design options. Finally, the perennial Scrooge is eyeing a finale: Bruce Cromer says this is likely his last outing as the miser. He hopes, in passing the baton, to leave space for more equity and diversity in casting future productions.

At its heart, "A Christmas Carol" is about Scrooge, and his journey from bleak cynicism to unabashed joy. Andrea L. Shell, who has served as stage manager for the show since 2006, sees that theme hitting audiences differently this year: "I have never before heard the Ghost of Christmas Present get cheers for his entrance. You would have thought a rock star was coming on stage."

Cromer sees the same dramatic impact from the stage. After a year filled with anxiety and cynicism, he says, "The message of this show is so powerful. We get to do it for audiences that come back year after year, and now they're hungry for it. They need it."

Cincinnati Shakespeare Company's (CSC) holiday tradition always begins as another adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" before morphing into a celebration that sprints through as many BHCs (Beloved Holiday Classics) as possible. "Every Christmas Story Ever Told (And Then Some!)" is a unique annual tradition, as CSC's production of it is the most successful and longest running in the country. What sets it apart came about because CSC first produced it at Arnold's Bar and Grill and needed a stage manager who could also be part of the show. The solution was Drunk Santa, who provides mocking meta-commentary (and lighting cues) throughout. Think Statler and Waldorf from "The Muppets," but in a sleigh full of empty beer cans. Miranda McGee has played the part for 13 years.

The script for "Every Christmas Story" calls for topical and local references to keep the show relevant. Coupled with casting changes over time and audience participation, that means it can feel fresh with each new season. At its core, it's always about joy and unabashed goofiness. Managing director Maddie Regan notes, “Often our job is to drive deeper dialogue and to challenge, and joy sometimes gets overlooked.”

Like Playhouse, CSC sees audiences reacting in a new light. In every performance, Drunk Santa reads notes from the audience after intermission. The notes can address the cast or other audience members. Most years, they provide sarcastic jabs that McGee uses as a comedic springboard. This year, she says, they're almost entirely sincere expressions of love and gratitude. “It’s very annoying. What can I do with this? I can’t make fun of this at all, it’s just delightful!”

Holiday Pops has been a centerpiece of the Cincinnati Pops Orchestra's season since the orchestra was founded in the mid-1970s. After a livestreamed concert from Music Hall in 2020, Pops conductor John Morris Russell is ready to welcome audiences back in person this year. The Pops has the largest orchestral library in the world, so every Holiday Pops has an eclectic mix of music. Each concert also includes old favorites, sometimes in a new light. “Unique orchestrations are a hallmark of what we do. We’re constantly finding new ways to present these great pieces of music,” Russell says. Paraphrasing Beethoven, he notes, "This is our hug to the have that simple thing where you just sit down and listen, it finds that place where everyone can find peace and joy."

There are two common refrains among all the arts organizations returning to their holiday traditions this year. The first is that this is a season where we get to celebrate joy at a time when joy is sorely needed. The second: Ask what it means to bring these live experiences back and you'll hear the same thing from performers like Miranda McGee and Bruce Cromer, conductors like John Morris Russell, or administrators like Andrea Shell and Maddie Regan.

"It's magic."