Nathan Gunn, Mark Delavan, and Marc Kudisch in Baritones Unbound Credit: Chuck Osgood

Baritones Unbound Noted singers Nathan Gunn, Mark Delavan, and Marc Kudisch star in this informal celebration of the baritone in classical and popular music. The baritone range is located between tenor and bass—”between heaven and earth,” as Kudisch (who conceived and cocreated the show) notes. In story and song, the men trace the evolution of “the uncommon voice of the common man” in selections from opera (Mozart, Verdi, Wagner), operetta (Gilbert and Sullivan), American musical theater (Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Loewe, Porter, Sondheim, Jerry Herman), and the Great American Songbook (Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas”). There’s even a smidgen of rock ‘n’ roll: Elvis Presley’s “It’s Now or Never,” in a medley with the 1960 hit’s source, the 1898 Neapolitan song “‘O Sole Mio.” Gunn’s creamy, well-placed voice, connection to the lyrics, and casually charismatic stage presence set him apart from his colleagues at the opening matinee I attended. Kudisch’s upper-register nasality and Delavan’s sometimes foggy tone produced an uneven blend and some out-of-tune harmonies in the group numbers, and Delavan’s rendition of the great “Lonely Room” aria from Oklahoma! substituted a showoffy and dramatically unearned alternate ending for the one Richard Rodgers wrote, reminding me of Wagner’s famous phrase “effects without causes.” (But the audience ate it up.) Directed by David Dower, this Boston-born touring show features musical direction by pianist Timothy Splain. —Albert Williams

Waltzing Mechanics return with <i>El Stories: Holiday Train</i>.
Waltzing Mechanics return with El Stories: Holiday Train.Credit: Courtesy Greenhouse Theater

El Stories: Holiday Train Waltzing Mechanics debuted its first installment of this documentary series chronicling strangers’ real-life oddities and inspirations on the CTA five years ago. Now, 23 editions in, it’s become a staple of the late-night theater scene and an enduring outlet for a revolving door of fresh-faced storytellers. This year’s holiday edition once again highlights, in a batch of sugary monologues, the unique joy otherwise ornery Chicagoan subway riders experience upon seeing lit-up, bedazzled trains. The quirk-to-sentiment ratio seems a little off and perfunctory, however, leaving most bits more simply sweet than profound.

—Dan Jakes

The cast of <i>Holiday Stories</i>
The cast of Holiday StoriesCredit: Courtesy Three Cat Productions

Holiday Stories Three Cat Productions brings us nine merry and merrily awkward Christmas sketches, interspersed with caroling and dance interludes in the jolly holiday tradition. These are new works, dwelling on such winsome themes as a Jewish tween girl’s yuletide fantasies of holly and trim and a suicide hotline worker’s attempts to deal with a pill-popping husband who wants to off himself before New Year’s. Elya Faye Bottiger shows fabulous range, and Jaime Coates’s clowning helps liven up otherwise inane bits. But the audience has to suffer through a lot of goo to see the last and best sketch, which hilariously turns the entire cast into giggling third-graders in a pageant about Woden and the pagan origins of Christmas. —Max Maller

Huggable Riot's <i>The Naughty List: A Holiday Sketch Review</i>
Huggable Riot’s The Naughty List: A Holiday Sketch ReviewCredit: Sam Bengston/Seneca Photography

[Recommended]The Naughty List: A Holiday Sketch Revue A sullen teen suffers through her parents’ efforts to create original hip-hop Christmas carols. Apocalypse survivors helplessly attempt to celebrate Hanukkah in an underground bunker, although none is Jewish. Huggable Riot’s hour of sketch comedy isn’t especially naughty once the opening song, “Chicago Winters Fuck Us in the Butt,” concludes. Rather, the six-person ensemble, under Mark Fleming’s fleet, nuanced direction, aim for something much more sophisticated and difficult: namely, rendering extreme holiday anxieties at once absurd and familiar. It’s sharp, imaginative stuff, and often disarmingly touching—the bunker dwellers, for example, want a Hanukkah celebration to ensure the tradition doesn’t disappear from the earth. —Justin Hayford

Akvavit Theatre’s <i>The Orchestra</i>
Akvavit Theatre’s The OrchestraCredit: Sooz Main

The Orchestra Finnish playwright Okko Leo’s 2013 comedy typifies Akvavit Theatre’s offerings over the past five years: droll, unmoored, unendingly peculiar. Five-piece rockers the Everlast had one hit 20 years ago. Now they play one wedding a month. Self-absorbed lead singer Jase makes one final, preposterous stab at success: he’s asked pop star Simone Butterfly, sister to one of his bandmates, to stop by the wedding in hopes she’ll join the band. Leo coyly sets the play in the band’s nondescript dressing room, a cruddy limbo where long-repressed dreams and longer-repressed resentments hold dominion. Director Brad Akin finds ample humor and pathos as the band bumbles toward rejuvenation, but when the play devolves into an unaccountable hostage situation, internal logic evaporates—along with most of the comedy. —Justin Hayford

[Recommended]Phiggy Pudding This improvised hour of holiday storybook fun relies on the little ones in attendance to decide pivotal plot points. The cast begins by presenting holiday storybooks as potential jumping-off points for the set to follow, then audience members vote on their favorite story. The Snow Rocket (previously published as Romeo and Lou Blast Off) kicked things off on the day I attended, and cast member Jake Farrington read the story’s introduction before passing things off to the cast for improvisation. Austin Campion and Brett Mannes delivered all-ages-appropriate comedy as the titular pair, weaving a wild tale of a kidnapped Santa, warring gnomes and fairies, and immobilizing snow pants. Young audience members were eager to be put to imaginary work onstage shoveling snow and baking cookies, eventually helping defeat evil Robot Santa (played with great physical comedy by Bill Letz). —Marissa Oberlander

CiC Theater's <i>Process</i>
CiC Theater’s ProcessCredit: Courtesy CiC Theater

Process This CIC Theater troupe shows a good ear for irreverence, and the setup—a new holiday show from rehearsal to closing night—offers a lot of potential for industry in-jokes and seasonal satire. It’s a shame, then, that during opening weekend, the format proved more a burden than a launching pad. On the night I attended the innocuous audience suggestion of “Santa Leaves Town” as the title for a new Christmas play somehow ended with the big guy loudly masturbating over two mortified elves. In the parameters of absurd comedy, that would all be well and fine–if the rest weren’t so full of gags and metagags with ever-diminishing returns. —Dan Jakes

Neela Barron, Jeff Myer, and Darren Hill in Raven Theatre's <i>Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Goose</i>
Neela Barron, Jeff Myer, and Darren Hill in Raven Theatre’s Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas GooseCredit: Dean La Prairie

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Christmas Goose Only a little more than an hour long, this little drama is tailor-made for holiday audiences who want mild diversion uncomplicated by strong religious sentiment. Adapted by Michael Menendian and John Weagly from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 tale “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” the story, set in Victorian London at Christmas, is standard Holmes fare, if a bit thin; summarizing it would spoil it. Rachel Edwards Harvith, who directs this year, is particularly adept at creating stage pictures that look like engravings from the Strand Magazine. And the production is packed with strong performances—Jeff Meyer is particularly winning as Holmes—and padded out with lots of Christmas carols. But in the end, one leaves this show hungry for some real drama. —Jack Helbig

Li'l Buds Theatre Company's <i>Tinsel! The Musical</i>
Li’l Buds Theatre Company’s Tinsel! The MusicalCredit: Courtesy Li’l Buds Theatre Company

[Recommended]Tinsel! The Musical Tinsel (Amanda Anne Dayton), the forgotten daughter of reindeer Cupid, is awkward, nearsighted, and a fan of country music. Frosty (David Gordon-Johnson) puts up with her clumsy waitressing at his North Pole diner. Things seem to change when she is discovered by Dastardly Snide (Shym Jamin) and his sidekick, Sneakly (Bethany Arrington), who encourage her to enter a “Next Big Thing” competition. This is Tinsel’s Susan Boyle moment, and she stuns the skeptical crowd and judges alike with her elegant singing voice. Dayton carries the musical part of the show with her chops and charm; there are nice supporting moments too (Tamara Anderson is great as blues-singing Tee Lee the Christmas Tree). It’s a fun, festive and original story for the littlest audience members, who will thrill to be up close and personal with the cast. —Suzanne Scanlon

The Goodman and Second City return with <i>Twist Your Dickens</i>.
The Goodman and Second City return with Twist Your Dickens.

Twist Your Dickens There are the reverent Christmas shows and the subversive ones. Goodman Theatre has had reverent covered since 1977, with its heirloom version of A Christmas Carol. Last year it expanded into subversion, presenting the Second City’s Twist Your Dickens—a profane, Bizarro World rendering of the Scrooge story, written by Colbert Report veterans Peter Gwinn and Bobby Mort. The first iteration had its nasty pleasures, including a holiday party hosted by Tiny Tim for his wee pals with rickets, dropsy, and advanced malnutrition. The second? Same pleasures, not quite so fresh. Inasmuch as almost nothing has changed, the show doesn’t reward annual viewings. Even the spectacle of Francis Guinan’s Scrooge attempting hip-hop moves bears only so much repetition. If you saw it last time, you’ve seen it. —Tony Adler

MCL's <i>Yippee Ki Yay Merry Christmas: A </i>Die Hard<i> Christmas Musical</i>
MCL’s Yippee Ki Yay Merry Christmas: A Die Hard Christmas Musical

Yippee Ki Yay Merry Christmas: A Die Hard Christmas Musical Let’s be frank: Die Hard, the 1988 actioner that launched Bruce Willis’s film career and inspired a thousand knockoffs, is already a hilarious movie. Did it really need the musical spoof treatment (or, for Bob’s Burgers fans, another one)? Ready or not, Michael Shepherd Jordan’s popgun-popping laffer is making a return MCL engagement this holiday season after last year’s wildly successful run. The production has an impeccable Alan Rickman impersonator in Mark Rudy and some good riffs on cocaine and FBI Special Agent Johnson. But the cast’s timing is off, which keeps a stapled-on Laquan McDonald reference from landing. And the humor’s confused: Alan Metoskie’s barefoot “Bruce McClane” goes from pissed-off straight man to silly jokester in a New York minute. Thankfully, at only an hour and BYOB, it’s an outing that won’t make you feel you’ve been taken hostage at Nakatomi Plaza. —Andrew Lapin