When the curtain goes up, they literally gasp."
That's how Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park's producing artistic director, Blake Robison, describes the audience reaction to this year's "A Christmas Carol." It's one of many annual traditions that anchor the region's holiday arts season. You know the ones. They come back each year because Cincy audiences keep coming back for them, and in some cases, even bring their kids to experience the magic they felt when they were young.
But what happens when those traditions need to change? How do you maintain tried and true holiday magic while continuing to innovate? Playhouse faced that question because of its new venue. A younger local organization, Revolution Dance Theatre, grappled with a similar question: how to establish a holiday tradition that stays true to its founding principles, cultivates a new audience and strengthens the voices of Black artists.
Playhouse's "A Christmas Carol" has had the same set, costumes and script for nearly 30 years. This year, it's all new. The old scenery and props, designed for the thrust stage of the Marx Theatre, wouldn't work in the new Rouse Theatre's proscenium configuration. Blake Robison wrote and directed the new adaptation, ensuring it takes full advantage of the new space.
There are nearly 100 new costumes, including a 20-foot puppet reminiscent of a dementor from "Harry Potter." There's a new stage, set, scenery, soundscape, script and even a new Scrooge.
Robison is candid about how important "A Christmas Carol" is to the organization's bottom line, "For many, it's the only play they see all year," he says. "It carries our brand forward into the world."
However — as though taking a cue from Dickens — he also points to a deeper sense of value: "It's a huge spectacle, but it's a very personal story, with heart. We see it as our gift to the community." All the more reason to rediscover and even surpass the magic of the previous version.
Down the road from the Playhouse, a mission-driven holiday refresh has been the biggest success story for Revolution Dance Theatre, despite founding artistic director David Choate's initial misgivings.
"I said we would never do a 'Nutcracker,'" says Choate. He founded the region's first professional African American ballet company to help develop Black dancers' careers and challenge the idea that the African American community lacks an appetite for ballet. Tchaikovsky's holiday classic wasn't exactly top-of-mind in serving that vision.
Two points became quickly evident. First, a familiar role on a dancer's resume goes a long way in a dancer's professional development. Second, a family-friendly holiday show draws in audiences. Needing to capitalize on the opportunity but never one to compromise on his convictions (and contrary to a popular adage) Choate decided to reinvent the wheel. "The world doesn't need another 'Nutcracker,'" he says, "But the world did need one where I could go see a Black Sugar Plum Fairy."
"Hot Chocolate" answers that need, synthesizing the original story and score of "The Nutcracker" with new choreography and music. "Who said that every single ballet has to be done with just a symphonic orchestra?" Choate asks. "We love the orchestra, but we have some fun mixing in a little bit of that hip-hop flavor." Cincy audiences share that sentiment, as the entire "Hot Chocolate" run was sold out in 2022.
Cincy audiences love their holiday traditions, but "A Christmas Carol" and "Hot Chocolate" show you can innovate and amplify new voices without losing the holiday spirit.