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Cinderella; The Santaland Diaries

Plus: The Little Prince

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Cinderella
Raleigh Little Theatre, A.J. Fletcher Opera Theater, Progress Energy Center, Raleigh
Through Dec. 16; www.raleighlittletheatre.org

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Raleigh Little Theatre's annual Christmas-time production of Cinderella began as homage to English holiday tradition, according to director and RLT artistic director Haskell Fitz-Simons. Now in its 24th year, the elaborate musical has become a local tradition as well. Doubtlessly benefiting from its longevity, Cinderella is well-crafted, with some RLT actors practically married to roles—notably M. Dennis Poole, whose 10 years in drag as the evil stepsister Gertrude have resulted in an expert slapstick portrayal.

Longevity has also bequeathed Cinderella with a devoted following—the audience contained the latest generation of young girls dressed in princess gowns and tiaras. As it turned out, the girls were well prepared for the production's moment of audience participation, when Prince Charming (Nick Culpepper) wades into the audience to try the glass slipper on the feet of the eager girls. Adults may be less moved, but this play understands why fairy tales are precious to children.

RLT also makes Cinderella larger than life to children through its caricatured approach to the story, particularly noticeable in the costumes of the wicked stepmother (Sandi Sullivan) and the evil stepsisters, Gertrude and Henrietta (Timothy Cherry). Adding to the awe for young ones is RLT's knack for energetic and quirky characters, such as the agile Fairy Helpers Ebony and Ivory (Jackson Bloom and Jason Cooper, respectively) and the nearly blind King Darling III (Chris White), whose performances ring with well-placed comedic timing. Sprinkled throughout are clever (albeit sometimes banal) jokes for the benefit of the adults, including King Darling III's quip that someday his son would be "King ... formerly known as Prince."

Although this production is full of catchy musical numbers, especially the Fairy Godmother's "Hi Diddle Dee," Cinderella also contains a number of trifles—such as a meandering duet between Prince Charming and Young Prince Charming (Forester Amatori) called "If I Gave You a Silken Ribbon"—which contribute to putting the show's running time at just over what its young patrons can handle. Despite these minor drawbacks, Cinderella is a fine addition to any youngster's holiday tradition. —Megan Stein


The Little Prince
Playmakers Rep, Chapel Hill
Through Dec. 16; www.playmakersrep.org

By this point, we whisper no secret in observing that the terms "holiday classic" and "family show" have all but become code words for super-sized portions of theatrical junk food, with hambone acting lovingly dished up as the main entrée.

Happily, Playmakers' new production of Antoine Saint-Exupéry's classic allegory The Little Prince is fine dining indeed. Let's have years to savor Kenneth Strong's Aviator, an ordinary man caught in three extraordinary circumstances: crashing a plane in the Sahara Desert, living to tell the tale, and then meeting a curious emissary from a distant star. More iterations, please, of Lesley Shires' clearly innocent but uncannily direct discourse as the title character. And even then, more time, if possible, to spend in McKay Coble's minimal—and then suddenly fantastic—desert landscape of the imagination.

We must credit Coble and guest director Tom Quaintance with some very tricky navigation in this production. It must have been quite tempting—and would have been too easy—to drown Saint-Exupéry's potent metaphor for children and adults in the spectacle that holiday shows always succumb to.

Not that there's any shortage of visual stimuli in this production. The aviator's fateful night flight before the crash is effectively rendered with little more than shadows and, yes, flashlights at center stage. By contrast, the sunsets of the desert explode with color and motion in Quaintance's staging, as actors in leotards fling orange and red banners and flags to Matthew Murphy's Afropop-tinged music. Coble's costumes for the silent Bedouins who carry the constellations of the night sky recall the designs of Julie Taymor, as do her colorful mask, fabric and mechanical designs for those badlands denizens, the fox (an amusing Jason Powers) and the snake (a thoughtful Joy Jones).

Two tickets, please. For next year's performance. Thanks. —Byron Woods


The Santaland Diaries
Common Ground Theatre, Durham
Through Dec. 22; www.cgtheatre.com

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In his celebrated recollection of working as an elf at Macy's in New York, essayist and Raleigh native David Sedaris recounts a young girl crying because she doesn't want to get on Santa's lap. The poor girl's mother, feeling pressure to snag the token Christmas photo, grabs her daughter and yells that she will get on Santa's lap. As Sedaris astutely observes, "It's not about the child, or Santa, or Christmas, or anything but the parents' idea of a world they cannot make work for them."

Common Ground Theatre carries the torch of cynical Christmas spirit in the Triangle with its third annual production of The Santaland Diaries. Directed by Rachel Klem and starring, for the first time, local improv actor Dan Sipp, this one-man show gleefully wrings the compulsory cheer out of Christmas. Based on Sedaris' scabrous and hilarious essay, which originated on Chicago Public Radio's This American Life, Joe Mantello's seamless theatrical adaptation is showing signs of becoming a nationwide (anti-)Christmas tradition.

Amid descriptions of maniacal elf trainers, foreigners lost in Santaland, fist-fighting parents and depressive Santas, Sedaris maintains an element of holiday good cheer, an oasis of genuineness in a desert of misguided motives. In his original readings on radio, Sedaris related his tales with a certain amount of resignation to the decline of humanity—a near-acceptance that allows (tiny) slivers of optimism to slip through.

Sipp's interpretation adds a level of exasperation that feels more fitting to the present day than Sedaris' philosophical approach. With his well-timed punctuation and exaggerated facial expressions, Sipp whips Sedaris' tales to life with his interpretation that borders on, but never reaches, the sardonic. While Sipp's approach nails what's wrong with the world today, it almost misses the beats when Sedaris earnestly evokes holiday magic. Fortunately, Sipp doesn't, but the close calls are a useful warning to all of us cynics—and our increasing number of compatriots—this holiday season. —Megan Stein

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