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Auld Lang Syne 

Christmas plays hark back to old times

The holidays traffic so heavily in fuzzy memories of the past that nostalgia could be their prime function -- next to shopping, of course. The word "nostalgia" practically belongs in all those Christmas carols: "Silent Night, Nostalgic Night," "Nostalgia Bells," "Walkin' in a Nostalgic Wonderland," etc.

Devoting part of the year to reminding people of their heritage and childhood isn't a bad thing, but it can cause distortions, making you miss the kind of Christmas that nobody ever had. Three of this season's smartest holiday play scripts use the powers of nostalgia for good by tapping universal experiences, although the best one relies less on the past than the rest.

Theatrical Outfit's It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play presents a kind of nostalgia hat trick, evoking heartland small towns, a classic black-and-white film and an antiquated but treasured medium: the live radio broadcast. Joe Landry's adaptation, directed by Susan Reid, makes Theatrical Outfit's audience the live witnesses to the "WBFR Playhouse of the Air," as five actors play dozens of characters and create the sound effects of Frank Capra's 1946 film.

Since the show isn't really being broadcast, the gimmick is a little hokey, but the applause signs, giant microphones and other props have old-fashioned charm. Since the movie is such an annual ritual, the audience no doubt recollects the original film's scenes as the cast recounts the life of George Bailey (Hugh Adams), his Building & Loan career and the angelic intervention that saves him from suicide. Not surprisingly, the script cuts some of the most visual sequences, like the dance floor opening over the swimming pool, but retains all the classic lines.

Is it heresy to say I have problems with It's a Wonderful Life? Theatrical Outfit's snappy production only emphasizes how George sacrifices his dreams for his family and community, and he resolves to live only by seeing how miserable everyone is without him. It's a good thing his friends and relatives stand up for him, even as they weigh him down. Adams captures both the blunted aspirations and salt-of-the-earth decency, and manages to evoke Jimmy Stewart's delivery without doing an exaggerated impersonation. The story feels a little compressed and gets little chance to breathe, but it's still a breezy, entertaining show.

The Wales of poet Dylan Thomas' childhood proves nearly as ideal as Bedford Falls. Theatre Gael's production of A Child's Christmas in Wales, directed by Jessie Dean, recalls snowball fights, boozing family members and the fine distinction between "useful" and "useless" Christmas presents. Jokes like a postal worker frozen outdoors and the family turkey catching on fire don't have much punch, but Thomas' precise detail and lyrical language of his story make the era come alive.

The show unfolds partly as a conversation between the aging, drunken Thomas (Theatre Gael artistic director John Stephens) and his muse, called "The Bard" (Rachel Farley). Despite being 12 years old, Farley proves to be a striking performer, singing a lovely Christmas carol while accompanying herself on guitar. Nevertheless, she can't quite convey her role's subtle relationship with Thomas or the rhetorical demands of the verse narration. She's bound to be a star – but later. Generally, the rolling richness of the text upstages the production, suggesting that it could be stronger as a dramatic recitation by Stephens.

Synchronicity Performance Group's A Year with Frog and Toad culminates at Christmas, but as the title suggests, the action spans all the seasons, and the holiday sequences put the bow on the wrapper. Even if you don't remember Arnold Lobel's children's books, the tales of friendship touch on such timeless archetypes that you're bound to recognize them. Musical director Bryan Mercer plays the sunny, optimistic Frog, who often teaches life lessons to his more shortsighted friend Toad (Shawn Knight). Toad has always struck me as downbeat and deadpan, like Eeyore, but Knight finds laughs by making him frantically neurotic.

The adaptation, with book and lyrics by Willie Reale and music by Robert Reale, offers a practically flawless family show, at once simple and sophisticated. Like Stephen Sondheim for kids, the rhymes and melodies prove delightfully witty. In one of the best running jokes, Frog sends a letter to cheer up Toad, entrusting a snail (Drew Archer) as letter carrier. Throughout the play, the snail celebrates his task in song – "I put the 'go' in 'escargot!'" – even though it takes him the whole play to deliver it.

A Year with Frog and Toad features plenty of zany sequences involving props such as cookies and kites, but other moments dwell on the importance of solitude and patience. Like the books, the adaptation has an almost Zen quality that kids should learn and adults can appreciate, especially during the hustle and bustle of the holidays. If A Year with Frog and Toad doesn't remind you of past traditions, it deserves to be a tradition itself. I feel nostalgic for it already.

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