As a boy in Manchester, England, in the 1970s, Tim Carroll remembers gathering in front of the telly to watch old Hollywood musical comedies starring the likes of Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire. “They’re just so charming and goofy and heartwarming,” says the artistic director of the Shaw Festival. “I do have very fond memories of them all.”
It was no surprise, then, that Carroll turned to a stage adaptation of one of those classics – the 1942 Holiday Inn with Crosby and Astaire – when he decided to expand the festival’s winter programming in 2019.
The production was a solid hit and would have returned in 2020, except that COVID-19 intervened. Now that most of Ontario’s restrictions on live performances have been lifted, it’s back again – once more paired with Carroll’s own adaptation of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol as the Shaw’s holiday offerings this winter.
There was a time, not long ago, when there were no holiday shows at the Shaw. But when Carroll arrived to take charge in 2017, he thought it was a shame that the festival, which helps make historic Niagara-on-the-Lake a prime Ontario destination in the spring and summer, should shut down once the snow falls.
“It was an obvious question when I got here,” he says. “Being in a beautiful, picturesque town that lots of people enjoy in the winter, shouldn’t we have a Christmas offering?”
There are, of course, good financial reasons for performing arts companies to produce holiday fare. It’s the time of year for family outings and one where people seek traditional comfort food on the stage as well as the table, whether it be old Hollywood musicals, The Nutcracker or Messiah.
We hear our regular patrons say that it’s not really the holidays until they’ve gone to see Messiah.— Roberta Smith, acting CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra
“We hear our regular patrons say that it’s not really the holidays until they’ve gone to see Messiah,” says Roberta Smith, acting CEO of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. “When you look into the concert hall, you see people of all ages, three generations of a family.”
The TSO, which has been performing Handel’s mighty oratorio regularly since the late 1940s, had to cancel it last year as well. But it returns this winter, in a pared-down, 85-minute version to avoid an intermission and keep health risks to a minimum. The concert is being led by TSO resident conductor Simon Rivard, who promises that his abridgement will still give audiences their Messiah fix.
Handel’s work usually runs more than two hours uncut and Rivard admits it was a challenge to retain its sweeping Biblical storyline, convey its spiritual message and at the same time keep as many of its popular sections as possible. “It was heartbreaking to cut some of the numbers, but the greatest hits are still there,” he says, including “Rejoice greatly,” “The trumpet shall sound” and the non-negotiable “Hallelujah” chorus.
“I kept also the big choral numbers of the second part,” he adds, his personal favourites.
The TSO concert, featuring four soloists as well as its traditional Messiah collaborator, the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir, runs for five performances at Roy Thomson Hall in December.
Over at the National Ballet of Canada, they’ve also made pandemic adjustments to The Nutcracker. James Kudelka’s bountiful staging of the family favourite is back at the Four Seasons Centre, but the large cast won’t include any children under 12 and the minor kids’ roles usually filled by youngsters from the community will be performed exclusively by students from the National Ballet School. For added safety, the show won’t have its customary guest celebrities doing cameos as the Cannon Dolls.
There are also precautions for the many children who flock to the show annually, with unvaccinated kids requiring proof of a negative COVID-19 test before admittance.
With its dancing toys and sugar plum fairies, The Nutcracker has given countless kids their first taste of ballet.
Kate Hennig, for whom it was an annual ritual growing up, first saw it at the age of four. “I remember it very clearly,” says the Shaw Festival playwright and director. “It was also one of my earliest experiences in the theatre.”
Hennig is back at the helm of Holiday Inn, a production based on the 2016 Broadway adaptation of the film, which alters some aspects of the original story to make it more palatable to today’s audiences. The famous Irving Berlin numbers are still there, however – including the enduring “White Christmas,” which made its debut in the movie – along with a bevy of other classics from the Berlin songbook.
As for the staging, Hennig has gone straight for the nostalgia. Designer Judith Bowden’s set mimics a pastel-coloured 1940s postcard and her costumes make the most of that decade’s swanky fashions.
“I wanted that innocence, clarity and simplicity of a really gorgeous love story,” Hennig says of the song-and-dance extravaganza, which follows an on-and-off romance at the Connecticut inn of the title. “One of those love stories where we know exactly what’s going to happen right from the very beginning, but we get to watch it all the way through, in Technicolor.”
Just as the film, released during the Second World War, was a spirit-booster, Hennig hopes that this time around her production will serve the same purpose for pandemic-weary theatregoers. “It feels so right for this moment,” she says, “that we can invite audiences to have a diversion from stuff that’s been weighing on them for the last year and a half.”
Holiday Inn runs Nov. 14-Dec. 23 at the Festival Theatre in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont; Messiah runs Dec. 15-19 at Roy Thomson Hall and The Nutcracker, Dec. 10-31, at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts.
Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.