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Go off the beaten path with these Sarasota and Venice holiday shows

In a season filled with festivities and holiday shows, it's easy to overlook smaller venues.

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I won't sugarcoat my sentiments about sugar plum fairies. 

My Scrooge attitude started when I worked in New York's Rockefeller Center in the 1990s and early 2000s. Down in the lobby drugstore, a bobbing Santa Claus doll would croon Burl Ives' "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas" from Thanksgiving until New Year's. 

Ives played Sam the Snowman in the 1960s TV special "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," a show I had fond memories of as a child. But now I was tortured by Ives' holiday ditty every time I took the elevator down from the 43rd floor to buy a pack of gum or a tube of toothpaste.

I couldn't get the song out of my head. But what really stuck in my craw was the line, "It's the best time of the year." 

Who were they kidding? For me, Christmas was the worst time of the year. Salvation Army sidewalk Santas incessantly rang their bells as tourists on their way to see the tree blocked my way to work. (This was before telecommuting became widely accepted.) 

Fast forward a decade or so. I'm covering arts and entertainment in a land of shimmering beaches, palm trees with twinkling lights and Santas wearing Hawaiian shirts. There's a reason why Sarasota's new soccer team named itself "Paradise."

Now, I've got "Champagne Problems," as Taylor Swift sings. During the season, there are so many concerts, cabaret shows, live theater and dance performances, museum lectures and other events that it's hard to decide what to see. As Hanukkah and Christmas approach, the dilemma is compounded by a flurry of holiday-themed productions.

It's easy to overlook smaller shows when you're trying to score "Hamilton" tickets for the hip-hop musical's run at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall next spring.

Help is on the way. Here is a list of five unique holiday events — I call them "stocking stuffers" — that are bound to make you agree with Burl Ives: It is the best time of the year.

'A Tuna Christmas'

Maybe it's because I've driven through the Texas Panhandle many times, but the idea of a holiday show set in the "third-smallest" town in Texas intrigues me. 

I've had my fill of "Bright Lights, Big City." Give me bright lights in a small town like Tuna, Texas, where the local radio station covers the Christmas yard display contest. 

As it happens, the lights at Tuna's local community theater are in danger of being shut off because of an unpaid electricity bill. That's threatening to leave director Joe Bob Lipsey's production of "A Christmas Carol" on ice. 

There's other trouble afoot in Tuna: A menacing "Christmas Phantom" known for vandalizing holiday decorations could throw a monkey wrench into the Christmas display contest. The stakes are high since the competition has been won 14 times in a row by the same person.

What better place to see a holiday show featuring a community theater than a community theater like The Sarasota Players, which is closing in on a century in existence? 

Directed by Kathy Junkins, "A Tuna Christmas" is the sequel to "Greater Tuna." It's part of a series about you-know-where written in the 1980s by Texans Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard. Even though the play contains more than 20 characters, they were all played by Williams and Sears with Howard directing. 

In Sarasota, "Tuna Christmas" features Josh Brin, James McNally and David Russell. In a small town at heart like Sarasota, there might even be a Joe Bob in the audience, along with the one on the stage.


'Joyful! Joyful!'

Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe Founder and Artistic Director Nate Jacobs wrote the holiday musical "Joyful! Joyful!" in 2021 and has updated the musical revue of classic holiday songs, gospel-infused classics and pop favorites. 

"Joyful! Joyful!" was named to evoke the spirit of the holiday season, but it's an apt description for the man who built his own black theater from scratch in Sarasota 24 years ago.

The soulful holiday spectacular "Joyful! Joyful!" plays from Nov. 29 to Dec. 30 at Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe.
Photo by Sorcha Augustine

I haven't been to see "Joyful! Joyful!" yet so I can't opine on the show, but I can say without equivocation that it's impossible to leave one of WBTT's musicals without a smile on your face. (Dramas are another story, but they're written to elicit tears.)

WBTT's recent production of the hit Broadway musical "Once on This Island," a Romeo-and-Juliet tale set against the backdrop of French colonialism in the Caribbean, was a joy to behold.

I will mention that the horseshoe seating around a stage set low to the ground, state-of-the-art lighting and HVAC, and best of all, comfortable seats make every WBTT show a pleasant experience. 

Of course, it's world-class performers and musicians (who are sometimes tucked away in a space above the ceiling) that make "Joyful! Joyful!" a holiday show not to be missed. But for those of us with creaky bones, a comfy seat is welcome.

Some of Sarasota's other community theaters could take a page from WBTT's fundraising playbook. But they don't have its secret weapon: Jacobs, who is charm personified.

Perhaps Jacobs is one of those souls who was born with a sweet disposition. Maybe he got happy along the way. Either way, the town of Sarasota is fortunate to have him spreading the gospel of joy, during the holidays and the rest of the year.


Handel's 'Messiah'

As the Bible notes, "There is nothing new under the Sun." That is especially true when it comes to debates about what is fitting to be seen on stage. 

It's hard to believe, but more than 280 years ago, after it was written by George Frederick Handel, "Messiah: A Sacred Oratorio" sparked controversy. Why? Some people believed a religious-themed composition should not be performed in Dublin musical halls or London theaters.

Fortunately, some of that brouhaha has died down over the years. Furthermore, the Sarasota Choral Society's performance of Handel's "Messiah" will take place in a sacred space, The Church of the Palms, not a theater.

Sarasota Choral Society has been performing Handel's Messiah annually since 1944.
Image via

Now in its 77th year, the Sarasota Choral Society's holiday tradition has been around longer than some of Sarasota's most esteemed cultural institutions, like the Sarasota Orchestra, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this season.

The version of "Messiah" annually performed by the Sarasota Choral Society is known as the Christmas version, which is made up of sections dealing with the birth of Christ, including the "Hallelujah Chorus." 

In the past, as many as 300 singers have participated in the event, which this year features soprano Hein Jung and organist Jonathan Spivey. It's a one-day performance only so don't miss one of Sarasota's most beautiful and enduring holiday traditions. 


'A Brave New Wonderland'

You have to be brave to start a circus these days. Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey, Cirque du Soleil and New York's Big Apple Circus all ended up in bankruptcy, though the latter two reinvented themselves. But brave is an adjective that describes aerialist Nik Wallenda, who has been dubbed "Sarasota's Hometown Hero." 

Even if that sobriquet was dreamed up by a clever marketing person, no one's going to argue with it. Wallenda and his acrobatic family have demonstrated their circus arts heroism for more than 100 years. Nik himself has performed such death-defying feats as walking over Times Square, the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and a live volcano in Nicaragua.

Wallenda, who was part of an investor group that resurrected the Big Apple Circus, decided to stay home for the holidays this year. He and his friends, Circus Arts Conservatory co-founders Pedro Reis and Dolly Jacobs, founded a Christmas-themed circus called "A Brave New Wonderland."

The holiday circus spectacular "A Brave New Wonderland" with Nik Wallenda features the Bone Breakers.
Courtesy image

The show takes place under the Big Top east of University Town Center through Jan. 7 and features comedians, aerialists and poodles. (Note to animal rights activists: They're treated well!)

Leave any preconceived notions you have about circuses at the tent door. This sophisticated, sublime production is sure to become a Sarasota tradition. Ticket are going fast so there's no danger of a flop. Even if there are some growing pains, Wallenda won't walk away. His motto is: "Never give up."


'A Christmas Carol'

One of Charles Dickens' most popular books was written in 1843 under duress because its high-living author was having financial troubles. The same motivation was the driving force behind some modern-day Christmas records.

Dickens' tale of how nighttime visits by ghosts transform the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge into an avuncular godfather has inspired countless plays and movies over the years on both sides of the Atlantic. Now the Sarasota area has an original version from Scott Keys on stage at the Raymond Center in Venice. 

Keys, the longtime director of the theater program at Booker High School's renowned Visual and Performing Arts Program, retired two years ago and has been getting more involved in Sarasota area theater. He recently directed a hilarious production of "Ruthless!" at the Sarasota Players. 

For "A Christmas Carol," Keys has written original book and lyrics. The show features original music by E. Suzan Ott with additional music by Scott Keys, Jason Brenner and Eli Schildkraut.

Fans of the Venice Theatre's past productions of "A Christmas Carol" will welcome the return of Brad Wages as Scrooge. Alyssa Goudy and Murray Chase both receive directing credits.

Even if you haven't received a visit from the ghosts of Christmases past, present and future to lead you to your better angels, consider writing a check to the Venice Theatre. 

It is still rebuilding after Hurricane Ian damaged its main Jervey Theatre in 2022. This season, it will perform at four different venues in Venice: The Pinkerton Theatre, the Raymond Center, the Venice Performing Arts Center and the Venice Community Center, as the costly repairs to its mainstage theater continue.



Monica Roman Gagnier

Monica Roman Gagnier is the arts and entertainment editor of the Observer. Previously, she covered A&E in Santa Fe, New Mexico, for the Albuquerque Journal and film for industry trade publications Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.

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