Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker!(Photo © Catherine Ashmore)
Matthew Bourne's Nutcracker!
(Photo © Catherine Ashmore)
There are many promising theatrical packages waiting to be unwrapped in a surprisingly busy December in L.A. This is usually a wind-down month, in preparation for the big guns of the new year, but someone apparently forgot to tell the local theater producers. There's a bright array of holiday-themed treats, as well as some shows of timeless interest.

There's nothing quite as exciting as taking a revisionist look at a vintage Broadway musical. Heading the December roster is the fresh theatrical coat being applied to the 1951Lerner and Loewe Gold Rush tuner Paint Your Wagon. At the Brentwood Theatre (December 1-January 9), the Geffen Playhouse's artistic director Gil Cates is helming a revised version of this seldom-revived chestnut, from the composers of My Fair Lady, Camelot, and Brigadoon. Rewriting a dated book for a musical proved to be a masterstroke when David Henry Hwang did it for Rodgers and Hammerstein's Flower Drum Song in 2001, and Gates is betting that lightning will strike again, as David Rambo devises a completely new script to wrap around those glorious songs. We need something to erase from our memory the "golden" tones of singing cowpokes Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin in Joshua Logan's disastrous 1969 film version. Here's hoping the formidable Rambo can whip the old warhorse into shape. Another major musical uses quite the opposite approach, slavishly recreating a classic, as a $4.5 million touring production of Les Miserables marches into Hollywood's Pantages theatre (December 2-January 1).

Several Christmas goodies are on tap. Matthew Bourne's version of the classic Tchaikovsky ballet Nutcracker! appears at both the Orange County Performing Arts Center (December 7-12) and Royce Hall on the UCLA campus (December 15-January 2), a co-offering of the Center Theatre Group and the UCLA Live series. This version reportedly turns the ballet classic on its ear, with Bourne's trademark wit, pathos, and magic. There's likely to be additional old-fashioned charm in some productions: Gay Men's Chorus of L.A.'s concert Swing, Santa, Swing! at Glendale's Alex Theatre (December 17-19); the Pasadena Playhouse's annual yuletide version of the nostalgic revue Forever Plaid, called Plaid Tidings (December 3-23); and Carolling, an original piece based on the works of Lewis Carroll at Glendale's A Noise Within (December 12-29). Then of course, there are countless stage versions of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. The best bet in this year's bunch is International City Theatre's remount (December 12-19) of its charming big-top version that debuted last year. Those with a taste for irreverent seasonal fare might want to partake of A John Waters Christmas, the famous underground filmmaker's comedy standup routine, with such guests as performance artist Extreme Elvis, and the self-proclaimed "favorite Jewish-American lesbian folksinger" Phranc. A UCLA Live event at Royce Hall, Waters' curdled cup of holiday cheer plays December 9 only.

Dramatic fare with no holiday themes but surefire general appeal are Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice at the Met Theatre in Hollywood (through December 15), reset in 20th-century New York. Joseph Beck's adaptation reportedly explores issues of immigration, ethnic identity, and cultural assimilation. Mark Taper Forum offers a straightforward treatment of another classic, Richard Brinsley Sheridan's Restoration comedy of manners, The School for Scandal (December 9-January 23). The Taper's sister company, the Kirk Douglas Theatre, premieres Jon Robin Baitz' The Paris Letter (December 12-January 2), in which the rise and fall of a powerful Wall Street bigwig is played out over four decades, as he tries to suppress his homosexual urges in the process.

Some offbeat offerings round out the month's highlights. With no Lord of the Rings screen epic to satisfy Tolkien aficionados this Christmas, director Joel McCray and nine improvisation performers give the film series a parody treatment in Fellowship! at the El Portal Theatre in North Hollywood (December 2-18). It features 12 original songs, barefoot tap-dancing Hobbits, and villains who croon New York-style cabaret numbers. With a biting satiric approach, perhaps it should be called Lord of the Stings. The L.A. Gay and Lesbian Center's Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center presents a return visit of its campy The Phacts of Life (December 4-18), a sendup of the vintage Charlotte Rae sitcom The Facts of Life. And sure to get children in a holiday mood, the interactive Off-Broadway hit, OHMLAND Live!, featuring a fanciful narrative, yoga, and plenty of songs makes its West Coast premiere at the Brentwood Theatre (December 4-18), part of the Geffen Playhouse's Saturday Scene! children's theatre series.

May your Christmas stockings be filled to the brim with theatre tickets, as we look forward to another year of artistic abundance.