Like Hamilton cast members on Mike Pence, holiday shows are swarming Chicago-area theaters. We review eight of them here, and there are more to come next week. —Tony Adler
A Charlie Brown Christmas Eric Schaeffer’s stage adaptation of the iconic 1965 animated Peanuts special for kids’ company Emerald City Theatre amounts to little beyond transcribing the dialogue verbatim, with little regard for how it might play live onstage. Turns out, awfully clumsily. Director Ann Filmer’s cheery cast struggle to find the sort of timing that might give 45 minutes of well-worn bits and halfhearted dance numbers a sense of momentum. The de rigueur holiday sing-along at the end is fun, although a rousing “Hanukkah, Oh Hanukkah” is bizarre after the show’s hyper-Christian message. —Justin Hayford
It’s Christmas, Goddamnit! It’s Christmas at the Jameses’ house, and things couldn’t be worse. Dad and the next-door neighbor are newly, secretly married. Their adult children—all basket cases—are so far none the wiser, but it’s only a matter of time before the secret’s out and everyone’s at each other’s throats. None of it is pretty. Going on four years now, the Annoyance Theatre’s annual holiday fracas is so rude, crude, and over-the-top that even Annoyance fans may be offended. On the positive side, the cast isn’t selling it as anything other than it is; this is straight-up family dysfunction and black (and blue) humor, grisly, obscene, and full of shock value. The downside is that it all wears thin pretty quickly, and the payoff is about as satisfying as finding a lump of coal in your stocking.
—Matt de la Peña
Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley Written by Lauren Gunderson and Margot Melcon, this world premiere from Northlight Theatre picks up two years after the end of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and centers on another Bennet sister, bookish and solitary Mary, played with caustic wit by a sharp Emily Berman. Get past the uneven English accents and the very audacity of a Austen sequel and it’s a sweet, romantic holiday story in which two intellectuals move from traveling the world via maps and a magnifying glass into the unexpected adventure of falling in love. Erik Hellman is a bumblingly appropriate foil for Mary as Arthur de Bourgh (son of the novel’s snobbish Lady Catherine), who pulls out a notebook of canned responses whenever nervous and at a loss for words. —Marissa Oberlander
The Rip Nelson Holiday Spectacular Hell in a Handbag leans hard on its tried-and-true camp tropes in this drag parody of an early-80s variety show. A recovering alcoholic television host gets a second chance at glory a decade or so too late when he scores his former rival’s time slot. Steve Love’s production of David Cerda’s comedy makes solid use of a vocally formidable ensemble in frequent, often unironic musical numbers. It’s more questionable whether the jokes built on vintage celebrities are enough to sustain the rest for an hour and a half—the erstwhile Bruce Jenner is the target of some particularly groan-worthy material—but David Lipschutz’s off-kilter, hilariously sinister turn as magician Doug Henning is hilarious every moment he’s onstage. —Dan Jakes
The Snow Queen Not to be confused with Michael Barrow Smith’s frequently staged musical adaption, this 2013 holiday panto takes an even sillier, more playful approach to Hans Christian Andersen’s fable about a young girl on a mission to rescue her friend from a wicked sorceress. As with a lot of theater for young audiences, it’s not clear which age group it’s best suited for—older kids at the performance I attended didn’t seem particularly amused by the bumbling pratfalls and shtick, and the younger ones had little reaction to the onslaught of malapropisms, wacky accents, and puns. A handful of original musical moments by Jessica Puller and Arne Parrott create some theatrical whimsy, but it’s not until late in the 90 minutes that much gets visually interesting or adventurous. —Dan Jakes