December 31, 2008

The Best Theater in 2008

Good art provokes a conversation between the person who makes it and the person who sees or hears it. Each dialog is unique and so I can’t really tell you what were the best shows of this past year but I can say that the following 10, listed in alphabetical order, really spoke to me.

Adding Machine
Because this adaptation of Elmer Rice’s 1923 play about an everyman accountant who snaps after being replaced by an adding machine not only taps into the zeitgeist of our own scary economic times but shows that chamber musicals can produce real show tunes and not just the ersatz arias that make so many of them a chore to sit through.

The Bacchae
Because the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Euripides’s tragedy provided flamboyant proof that a production of classic Greek drama can be simultaneously true to the play’s ancient text and thoroughly entertaining for modern audiences.

Billy Elliot
Because this adaptation of the movie about a British miner’s son who dreams of becoming a ballet dancer is one of the most out-and-out entertaining musicals to open on Broadway in years and because, in the tradition of the great Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals like the year's equally splendid revival of South Pacific, it also has something to say.

Black Watch
Because the National Theatre of Scotland’s meditation on the war in Iraq was a truly innovative production, superbly acted, marvelously staged and fully reproducible in no medium other than the theater.

A Body of Water
Because this mysterious little play about a couple who seem to suffer from joint amnesia ruminates on questions about life and death and love and redemption in such a compelling way that I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind.

Because newcomer Sahr Ngaujah is phenomenal as Fela Kuti, the Nigerian pop musician and political activist who challenged his country’s corrupt and repressive leaders, and because Afrobeat, the exuberant mix of jazz, funk and traditional African rhythms that Fela helped to create, is irresistible.

Because Patti LuPone’s performance as Mama Rose in this classic backstage musical is one of those once-in-a- lifetime performances that people will talk about for years to come and because not only LuPone but her terrific co-stars Laura Benanti and Boyd Gaines stayed with the show right through to the end.

In the Heights
Because although it’s not a great show, it’s a really great feel-good show that brings new energy and contemporary sounds to the musical and new audiences to Broadway.

The Seagull
Because this production of the Chekhov classic got the mix between the comic and the tragic just right and because the 22-year-old British actress Carey Mulligan gave the most heartbreaking performance of the season.

Top Girls
Because Caryl Churchill’s play about what it costs women to succeed was the most soul-nourishing night I had at the theater all year.

December 27, 2008

Reveling in Alvin Ailey's "Revelations"

Traditions are a big thing in my family. And, of course, this is the big season for them. So on Monday afternoon, my sister Joanne, my niece Jennifer and I went to the newly reopened The Palm Court at the Plaza Hotel to have our annual Christmas tea. On Christmas morning, the three of us temporarily abandoned our men folk and had our customary breakfast of lox and bagels, which none of our guys likes to eat. And last night, Joanne and I went to City Center to see the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

The Ailey Company takes up residence in City Center each December but this year’s stay is special because it celebrates the troupe’s 50th anniversary. Ailey was a Broadway gypsy, dancing a featured part in the musical Jamaica when he started his company in 1958. He was only 27 but it was a time of social ferment in the black community and African-American artists were finding exciting new ways to express and celebrate their culture. Lorraine Hansberry was writing A Raisin in the Sun, which would become the first drama by a black playwright to open on Broadway. The legendary off-Broadway production of French playwright Jean Genet’s The Blacks took on the issue of race and provided a showcase for such talented actors as Roscoe Lee Brown, James Earl Jones, Louis Gossett, Cicely Tyson, Maya Angelou.

Encouraged by Jamaica’s star, Lena Horne, Ailey recruited other dancers from that show’s chorus and began to make dances shaped by the memories of his Texas childhood. The first, Blues Suite, evoked the barrelhouses, or road side bars, where people who spent long weekdays toiling in fields let off steam on weekend nights. Set to traditional blues songs, it was funny, sexy and a little angry too.

But it was the piece Ailey created the next year that made his name and that has become arguably the best-known and most-loved of all American dances. He set it to the Negro spirituals he'd heard in church. He called it Revelations.

Ailey would go on to create over 70 other pieces but he always included the works of other choreographers in his company’s repertory, providing a place for black choreographers like Donald McKayle, George Faison, and Ulysses Dove to develop their talent. When Ailey died from AIDS in 1989, at just 58, Judith Jamison, the majestic dancer who was his close friend and sometime muse, took over the company and it has thrived under her leadership.

My family went to see the Ailey Company almost every year. And about 20 years ago, I got to spend a week hanging around with the Ailey dancers. But eventually it got to the point where I had seen Revelations so many times, that I stopped going to Ailey performances. But as I said, this year is different. So we got tickets for an all-Ailey program of three dances that began with Blues Suite, accompanied by a live five-piece blues band, and ended with Revelations.

Most of the dancers I knew and loved are gone but Renee Robinson, who joined the company in 1981, is still dancing. She is now the only person in the company who knew Ailey and that connection may be at least part of the reason that her elegantly articulated solo in Masekela Langage, a 1969 piece built around the music of the South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and reflecting the simmering rage created by the repressions of apartheid, was the most affective performance of the evening.

The audience, as is usual at Ailey performances, was wildly enthusiastic, applauding after each section and shouting its approval at the curtain calls. But it went crazy at the sound of the first notes of the spirituals that provide the music for Revelations. “This why I came,” a middle-aged blonde woman sitting in front of us told her companion as she leaned forward so that she wouldn’t miss a step.

I watched closely too and I was swept along with everyone else as the dancers took the journey from despair (“I Been 'Buked”) to salvation (“Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham”). My mother loved the Ailey concerts and Revelations was always her favorite. I thought of her throughout the performance. Dance isn't as popular an art form as it was in the '60s and '70s when Ailey was at his most creative but I think people continue to go to Ailey concerts because while his work is rooted in the black experience, it speaks to the heart of all humanity.

It is indeed a tradition to be celebrated. And luckily it will be for a longtime to come.
A decade or so ago, one benefactor, Donald L. Jonas, endowed Revelations as a birthday gift for his wife Barbara, ensuring Ailey's masterpiece as permanent a life as any stagework can have.

December 24, 2008

Turning on the (Christmas) Ghost Light

Theaters always leave on a light—or as it’s called in the business, a ghost light—when they’re empty. I’m doing my last-minute Christmas tasks and there will be no B&Me posting today so I’m turning on a Christmas-inspired ghost light. I’ll be back, as usual, on Saturday but in the meantime, I wish each of you a Merry Christmas, a Happy Hanukkah, a Happy Kwanzaa, a Good Winter Solstice and, while I’m at it, a very Happy New Year— filled with peace, prosperity, the fellowship of good friends and, of course, lots of great theater.

December 20, 2008

The Cardinal Sins of "The Black Monk"

Has there been a sale on snowmakers this season? It seems as though every other show I’ve seen over the past couple of weeks has featured a blizzard of some sort. That made sense for White Christmas and Slava’s Snowshow but less so when the downfall comes in the middle of The Black Monk, the small musical that South Ark Stage opened earlier this month at Theatre Row’s The Beckett Theatre. Alas, there isn’t much about The Black Monk that makes sense.

Yeah, I know what you regular readers are thinking. In my previous post I kicked the megamusical Shrek and now I’m picking on this little one. But no, nobody slipped me a Mickey of grumpy juice. And I had high hopes for The Black Monk when I first head about it. The piece is, as the Playbill notes, “inspired by the Anton Chekhov story” of the same name. I’ve seen a number of Chekhov’s classic plays this year and the idea of seeing a new Chekhov intrigued me. I also admire the show’s star Austin Pendleton. So I emailed my friend Ellie, the one-time actress, current poet and professor and longstanding lover of Chekhov, and off we went to see it.

The Black Monk tells the story of a young Russian (a philosopher in the story, an artist in the show) who, torn between the demands of the people he loves and the work he loves, makes a Faustian pack with a mysterious monk. And since the monk may be imaginary, the story also explores the relationship between genius and madness.

Wendy Kesselman, who did the adaptation for the 1998 revival of The Diary of Anne Frank, wrote both the book and music for The Black Monk and she's turned a delicate metaphysical tale into a mundane musical. Just as with Jill Santoriello, who took the same one-woman-band approach to the recently-departed A Tale of Two Cities, the results make you want to lobby for a law requiring all musicals to be written by at least two collaborators so that one person will be around to tell the other “This isn’t working.”

Its producers call The Black Monk a chamber musical. And the production could fit into most one-bedroom Manhattan apartments. There are just four actors and two—yes, count ‘em, 2—musicians: a hardworking pianist and cellist who have to churn through 23 unremarkable songs in just 90 minutes.

Of course, size shouldn’t matter but it seems to me that when you’re this small you should pay extra attention to the little details, which director Kevin Newbury definitely doesn't do. If a character is going to make a big fuss about sunflowers shouldn’t she be holding sunflowers instead of lilacs and roses? If the title character has to sing, shouldn’t he be able to carry a tune or at least be persuaded to talk his way through the number? As Pendleton warbled his way through one song after another, I squeezed my eyes shut like a toddler who believes that doing so means people will go away because it can’t see them. It didn’t work.

The miscast Pendleton aside, the actors—Elon Rutberg as the artist Andrei, Julie Craig as the woman he loves Tanya and Scott Robertson as her father Igor—do the best they can with what they’ve been given. But the real stars of the show are the technical folks—operating on limited budgets, they still manage to work a bit of stage magic. About half an hour in, a lovely old bed was wheeled on stage and Ellie leaned over and whispered “The bed is the best thing so far.” She still felt that way an hour later. I was enchanted by D.M. Wood’s lighting which painted luminous pictures on Charlie Corcoran’s simple but elegant set, helping it to morph gracefully from outdoor gardens to indoor chambers.

The actor David Rasche was in the audience at the performance Ellie and I attended. I assumed he’d come out of friendship for someone in the cast and wondered
if his recent experience with the equally-disappointing To Be or Not to Be would help him know what to say when he made the obligatory backstage visit after the show. Whatever he said, he must have said it quickly because just minutes after Ellie and I settled in at the bar of the always reliable West Bank Cafe across the street, Rasche and his companion came in. A stiff drink is always welcomed after you’ve had to trudge through slush.

December 17, 2008

Why I'm So Disenchanted with "Shrek"

Children still believed in fairy tales when I was a little girl. Maybe not literally, but certainly wistfully (I mean who doesn’t want a happy ending?). By the time I hit my tweens, though, the coolest kids were into the “Fractured Fairytales” that were a regular part of the “The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.” Those tales were mischievously subversive parodies, underscored by the tongue-in-cheek narration of the great character actor Edward Everett Horton. Today, of course, even the tiniest tykes view fairy tales primarily as source material for satire. Which brings us to Shrek, The Musical, which opened at the Broadway Theatre on Sunday.

Cartoonist William Steig’s original 1990 children’s book, “Shrek!” was a funny but simple story about an ugly and smelly green ogre, who not only got to be the hero of his tale but to get the girl too. The folks at Hollywood’s DreamWorks film studio added a more complicated storyline that brought in other fairy tale characters, lots of other pop cultural references, a few digs at their arch nemesis Disney and some inspired casting choices (Mike Myers voicing Shrek with a Scottish burr, Eddie Murphy as his smart-mouthed pal Donkey, and Cameron Diaz as Fiona, the spunky princess Shrek loves).

The result was a critically acclaimed and commercially successful series of animated movies (“Shrek 4” is now in the works). The first was one of my favorite movies of 2001 (I still like happy endings). Having triumphed on Disney’s movie turf, DreamWorks was eager to send its ogre on to challenge the Mouse Factory on Broadway and reportedly has spent $24 million to do it (Click here to read a New York Times story about Shrek’s transformation from page-to-screen-to-stage).

Most of the professional theater critics, seemingly always looking for some reason to knock Disney, have gone out of their way to welcome this latest incarnation of Shrek. “If the storytelling is bumpy in patches and the songs don't quite soar, the show never stints on spectacle or laughs, making it a viable contender for a slice of the Disney market on Broadway,” writes Variety’s David Rooney. Well, maybe. But it seems to me that a big, expensive musical like this one ought to be able to offer more than a herky-jerky story and mundane songs. And that, despite Brian D'Arcy James' game performance under pounds of green latex, is what you get with this Shrek.

The book and lyrics are by David Lindsay-Abaire, who won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for his moving drama Rabbit Hole (and also gets extra points from me because he’s a fellow alum of Sarah Lawrence College), but it seems as though his DreamWorks handlers didn’t allow him to veer too far from the script of the first “Shrek” movie. Except to add a few jokey references to other Broadway shows (but that, of course, has become de rigueur in contemporary musical comedies) and some belching and farting jokes.

Lindsay-Abaire also seems to have been forcibly enrolled in the Mel Brooks school of lyric writing—you string a bunch of words together, rhyme a few of them and voilà, a song. The music is by three-time Tony nominee Jeanine Tesori but there’s nothing really memorable about it either. In fact, on the night my sister Joanne and I saw the show, the exit music the orchestra played was “I’m A Believer”, the old Monkees song that was featured in the movie, and I enjoyed it better than anything that had been played during the stage show.

That’s not the only thing I enjoyed. Here are three others: 1. The always-perky Sutton Foster was, to borrow a fairy tale term, “just right” as Fiona, 2. Christopher Sieber was a riot as the villainous, vainglorious and vertically-challenged Lord Farquaad; not since José Ferrer taped his legs to his thighs to play Toulouse-Latrec (corrected from the Cyrano de Bergerac that I originally wrote, thanks to the eagle-eyes of my fellow blogger Mondschein at Third Row, Mezzanine) has an actor accomplished so much on his knees and never so hilariously, 3. the ogre ears they’re selling at the souvenir stand are adorable and they only cost $15.

Am I being too witchy? Well, maybe. But as Bruno Bettleheim said in his classic work, “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales”: “to hold the child’s attention, a story must entertain him and arouse his curiosity. But to enrich his life, it must simulate his imagination.” In this case, there is, alas, no truly happy ending.

December 13, 2008

The Wonders of "Slava's Snowshow"

I hadn’t planned to write about Slava’s Snowshow. But I hadn’t planned to like it either.

Slava Polunin is a Russian-born clown who has created a show composed of a series of near-totally silent sketches that exist in a primary-colored wonderland. There are funny costumes and pratfalls that play out against recorded versions of songs like the theme from "Chariots of Fire". But like the very best clowns—Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp in the movies, Emmett Kelly’s Weary Willie for the Ringling Brothers’ circus, Bert Lahr’s Estragon in Beckett’s Waiting for Godot—Slava concocts his comedy with a touch of tragedy.

At the beginning of the show, the main character, who is called Yellow in the Playbill, ostensibly because of the baggy banana-colored jumpsuit he wears, comes on with a rope, apparently intending to hang himself. But, of course, he doesn’t get the hang of how to do it. Instead, he falls in with a group of playmates decked out in long green coats, large thin feet and floppy-eared hats. There is no plot, they simply move from one funny bit to the next, at times pulling the audience into their shenanigans. (Click here to see excerpts from the show.)

I usually shudder when I hear the words “audience participation.” Which explains why I didn’t go down to the Union Square Theatre to see Slava’s Snowshow during its two-year run there. But the show, which has now played around the world and even won an Olivier Award in London, opened on Sunday for a four-week, holiday-season run at the Helen Hayes Theatre. So, off I went with my theatergoing buddy Bill and his good friend Rosemary. To my surprise and delight, the irresistible good cheer of Slava’s clown show melted even my priggish reserve.

Kids, of course, aren’t burdened with those kinds of inhibitions and they take to Slava’s Snowshow right away. Even before the performance starts, the aisles of the Helen Hayes are filled with bits of thin white paper that are there to simulate snowflakes. A serious-eyed little boy sitting across the aisle from us could hardly contain himself and kept jumping out of his seat to scoop up armfuls of the stuff and throw them into the air and sometimes at us.

Watching his sheer joy made me smile even more. For this is the kind of experience that can make a child believe that the theater is a magical place. What makes me frown, though, is that the experience is best appreciated if you sit in the orchestra and tickets for those seats, even for the tiniest tyke, cost a cool $111.50. Luckily, discounters like TheaterMania are offering cheaper tickets (click here to see TheaterMania's deal). Still, pricey but worth it if you want to turn a child into a theater lover in the future or to see the sense of wonder in his or her eye right now.

December 10, 2008

"Home", Sweet Home

Of all the plays produced by the Negro Ensemble Company, the one that always makes me smile whenever I think of it is Home. That’s partly because it’s hard to find a more endearing piece than playwright Samm-Art William’s paean to the rural black South of his childhood. But it’s also because my friend Sidney worked for the company back in 1980 and I remember how thrilled everyone there was when the show moved from a run at the St. Marks Playhouse down in the East Village to the Cort Theatre on Broadway, where it played for over 250 performances and was nominated for a Tony.

It wasn’t the first NEC play to make that move but Home’s relocation may have been the most joyous. Williams had started off as an actor with the company but also attended its Playwrights’ Workshop. He has said he wrote Home when he was stranded in New York one holiday season, too broke to afford the ticket home to North Carolina to see his parents for Christmas. Now, the Signature Theatre Company has brought the play back in a sweet revival that is the second production in its season-long tribute to the NEC.

Home tells the story of Cephus Miles, a man who loves the land, his neighbors and his sweetheart Pattie Mae Wells. The stage directions are intentionally plain (“it is of the utmost importance that this play be directed very simply and free of excessive choreography,” Williams writes in his author’s notes); the language poetic, sometimes breaking into song; and the humor good-natured as Cephus speaks directly to the audience about his fondness for farming, fishing, friends and his sometimes cynical faith in God.

His idyll is upset when Pattie Mae goes off to college and jilts him and his way of life. And gets even worse when he is jailed for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War and later migrates to a northern city. Without being too heavy-handed, Williams created an allegory of the African-American experience that reflected the romantic view at the time that urban life had become destructive for many black people and that the best alternative was to return to the south where new opportunities were opening up but old values like hard work and friendship were still valued.

The passing years have made his message somewhat less potent in the current Obama era. My 29-year-old niece Jennifer was restless and left before the talkback session began after the performance she, her mom and I attended. But you can’t fault the three talented actors in this production.

Kevin T. Carroll plays Cephus with just the right mix of naïveté and moxie. He is well supported by January LaVoy, who plays Pattie Mae and several other characters, both male and female; and Tracey Bonner, who is listed in the Playbill as Woman Two but also plays an array of roles. And director Ron OJ Parson wraps them in a production that conveys the comforting feel of a well-told fable.

I confess that the show didn’t quite live up to my memories of the original (whose cast included L. Scott Caldwell, now playing Rose on the TV show “Lost”). Still, it did hit enough of the right notes to bring a smile back to my face and to make me feel comfortable about going Home again. Yesterday, the run was extended through Jan. 11 so there’s time for you to make the trip too.

December 6, 2008

Surviving with "Liza's at the Palace"

As much as I’d like to, I can’t tell you a damn thing about the first half of Liza’s at the Palace…! because I didn’t see it. I had tickets for the first night of Liza Minnelli’s new comeback concert but somehow forgot that opening night curtains rise earlier than those for regular performances. And so my sister Joanne and I arrived at the Palace Theatre right as the audience was streaming into the lobby for the intermission break.

People seemed to be in a good mood about what they’d just seen. And a few celebrities peppered the crowd. Alan Cumming darted out of the theater as though he were desperate for a smoke. Vincent D’Onofrio sauntered by. Tommy Tune held gracious court in one corner of the lobby. And I later read that Shirley MacLaine and Elaine Stritch had turned out too.

But instead of gawking, I spent most of that time feeling bad that I’d deprived my siste
r of seeing the part of the show in which, according to the Playbill, Liza sang many of her signature tunes, including “Maybe This Time” and “Cabaret.” The second half of the show, which we did see, is dedicated to her godmother Kay Thompson, a legendary Hollywood vocal coach, arranger and performer (as well as the author of the "Eloise" children's books) and it largely recreates the nightclub act that Thompson developed in the late ‘40s. It includes a couple of songs written by Liza’s godfather, Ira Gershwin. “Wow,” my sister leaned over and whispered. “She had great godparents.”

And that, of course, is a large part of our endless fascination with Liza. As the daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, she is true s
how business royalty. She’s also probably our last link to the era of vaudeville and big movie musicals and razzle-dazzle Broadway shows. We’ve followed the family’s ups (Oscars for mom, dad and Liza, Tonys for mom and Liza, Emmys for Liza) and downs (substance abuse, bad marriages and divorces, weight issues and health problems for all three) for over 70 years now and in the process, we’ve developed a fondness for Liza that has developed into a protectiveness. We root for her to succeed.

Which is probably a large part of the reason that the reviews for Liza’s at the Palace! are mainly raves. The New York Times even assigned Stephen Holden, the most easy-going of its critics, to review her show. The critic for Time Out New York s
tarted off tough but couldn’t resist blowing a few compensatory kisses at the end of his short review. And if you’re hoping for some snarky comments from me, then you might as well stop reading.

Liza is now 62 and in just this decade alone, she’s been through a much-publicized divorce, had hip replacement surgery, survived a bout of viral encephalitis that nearly killed her, ballooned in weight and then slimmed down again (click here to read a New York Magazine profile). And yet, there she is up on the stage of the legendary theater where her mother made her own comeback in 1951, dressed in her trademark shimmery Halston-designed outfits and giving all she’s got.

It’s not as much as she once had. Even though the choreography was gentle
(more shoulder rolls and head tilts than high kicks) she seemed out of breath during most of the songs and actually stopped in the middle of one, gasping “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” But then, she went on. My buddy Bill, who did get to the theater on time, later told me that it wasn’t much different during the first act. But none of that mattered. Technical abilities are one thing. Artistry is another. Liza's artistry has always been that she works directly from the heart. And the audience on opening night wrapped her up in its own.

Folks in the front row stood after almost every number. I’m told that it was filled with friends who get those seats because they promise to give her t
hat visible show of support. But I don’t think there was any similar deal with the four guys sitting in the mezzanine right behind Joanne and me and they jumped up, stomped their feet, and shouted “Diva” just as often. As anyone who has ever attended a Broadway show knows, “the taking of photos is strictly prohibited” but phone cameras snapped constantly throughout the Palace, creating a kind of light show in the audience as people attempted to preserve some tangible memory of the performance.

Both exhausted by the performance and exhilarated by the response to it, Liza took bows that lasted for about five minutes. She giggled with glee. She hugged her four male back-up dancers. She insisted that the 12 members of the onstage band take a bow with her. And then, accompanied solely by her friend and music supervisor Billy Stritch on piano, she sang a moving and totally appropriate encore number that sent the audience out purring with delight.

“None of us are what we used to be,” a woman told her companion as we all filed out after Liza struck her iconic arm-thrust-upward pose and the final curtain came down. “But she’s still good.” A man standing nearby agreed. “She’s a superstar,” he said. “There’s very few of them left.” You’ll get no argument about any of that from me. I stood and clapped too. I wish I had seen the whole thing but I’m very glad that I got a chance to be there for even a part of this show business history. The run, originally scheduled for 10 days, has just been extended through Dec. 28. I started to worry about whether Liza has the stamina to make it through but then I remembered that she's a survivor.

December 3, 2008

A Holiday Gift List for Theater Lovers

The power shopping days of Black Friday and Cyber Monday are behind us but if you’re still looking for gifts to buy the theater lovers in your life (or to put on a wish list for someone to get you) here are 12 treats, one for each day of Christmas, that I’d love to find under the tree if I hadn’t already caved in and bought most of them for myself:

Tickets. D’uh. The one thing every theater lover wants is to see more shows and this year, the Theatre Development Fund is making it easier to satisfy that longing by offering TKTS Gift Certificates that can be use to buy reduced-price tickets on the day of the show at any one of the three TKTS booths in Manhattan and Brooklyn. They come in $25, $50 and $100 denominations.

Theater Ticket Album. It can be hard to keep track of all your tickets if you see lots of shows but this handy holder from the That’s My Ticket website keeps them all in one place. Or it could double as a keepsake filled with the stubs of all the shows seen in one season. $11.90 at that’

Kristin Chenoweth’s “A Lovely Way to Spend Christmas” CD. I have a weakness for Christmas music (and an embarrassingly large collection of Christmas CDs to prove it) but even if you tend to jingle to fewer of those bells, it’s hard to resist a collection of carols and holiday songs by Broadway’s inimitable cheer-bringer Chenoweth. $10.99 at

The Anton Chekhov Collection. This DVD collection brings together some of the world’s best classical actors (like Judi Dench, Michael Gambon, Patrick Stewart) in fully-filmed and beautifully-performed BBC productions of some of the theater’s most beloved plays (such as The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, Uncle Vanya). What theater junkie could ask for anything more? $53.99 at

The August Wilson Century Cycle.
The scripts of all 10 of Wilson’s landmark plays chronicling the experience of African-Americans in each decade of the 20th century are collected together in a gorgeous boxed set, complete with insightful introductions to each work by such commentators as Laurence Fishburne, Tony Kushner, Toni Morrison, and Frank Rich. It’s pricey but priceless. $129.36 at

On Broadway 2009 Wall Calendar.
Palm Pilots and BlackBerries can’t replace the charm of an old-fashioned wall calendar, especially if it’s one that features reproductions of the original posters for classic Broadway shows like The Glass Menagerie and Show Boat. Published by the Library of Congress, this calendar also contains fun facts about each month’s featured show. $13.99 at

How Does the Show Go On: An Introduction to the Theater.
What’s Christmas without a pop-up book or an advent calendar? This combo, written by Disney honcho Thomas Schumacher and Jeff Kurtti, is a doozie, even if it only cites Disney musicals. It was created to introduce kids to the theater but is filled with enough great stuff (like swatches for costumes from The Lion King and the stage manager’s cue notes for the now-departed Tarzan) to appeal to the inner child in every theater geek. $17.21 at

Historic Photos of Broadway: New York Theater: 1850-1970
Beginning with a portrait of Junius Brutus Booth and his young son Edwin and ending with a shot of the naked cast from the original production of Hair, this book is filled with rarely seen photos, all drawn from the Billy Rose collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. The one of a young and very sexy Arthur Miller suggests that Marilyn Monroe was turned on by more than just his mind and is, all by itself, worth the price of the volume. $31.96 at

The Wicked Music Box.
Over 3 million people have seen this mega-musical twist on "The Wizard of Oz" so chances are you know someone who loves it. Or love it yourself. If so, then this official keepsake, which plays the show’s “Defying Gravity” anthem and comes with a seasonally-appropriate snow globe, is for you. $75 at

Stephen Sondheim The Story So Far. Anyone who loves Sondheim already has the songs on this box set in their collection but there are just enough extra goodies to add some holiday cheer, including a 76-page booklet filled with nifty photos drawn from Sondheim’s own personal photo albums and a few rehearsal songs sung by the master accompanying himself on piano. $35.99 at

Essential Shakespeare Handbook. The folks at DK Publishing, who made their name with lavishly-illustrated travel guides, have brought their distinctive touch to this visually-rich guide to the Bard’s plays. There’s a scene-by-scene summary of each one, a who’s who of the characters, famous quotes, historical and literary analysis and marvelous images ranging from illustrations for 19th century productions to photos for 21st century ones. $24.50 at

The Complete Lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II. Truth be told, I don’t have this one. But a previous book in the series, "The Complete Lyrics of Cole Porter," has been on my bookshelf for years and is one of my great joys. The new book, which just came out, has collected the lyrics of more than 850 songs of arguably the most influential Broadway lyricist ever (and the mentor to Stephen Sondheim). It’s an enchanting gift for anyone who’s obsessive about musicals. $40.95 at