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Double-Dips of Santa 

Plus, a side of spicy salsa

It's the season of excess -- trees hewn for sacrifice, rabid crowds at shopping malls, revolutionary electric shavers ballyhooed on TV. Hollywood and Broadway roll out fresh movies and musicals to stoke the nationwide bacchanals, so why shouldn't local theater companies, symphonies, dance companies and opera houses do the same?

All too often, they don't. Sadly, they share the delusion that families gathering for the holidays want to be regaled with traditional favorites. Critics must navigate a gauntlet that includes Amahl, Messiah, Tuna, Nutcracker and Scrooge.

While the Tannenbaums haven't hung their stockings with care, I'm encouraged to find local performing arts are delivering more imaginatively this year -- infusing hearty helpings of salsa, farce and sacrilege to the live entertainment scene. Yup, it's been an unusually happy Hanukkah in 2007, thank you very much.

Late at night, Fridays and Saturdays only, Actor's Theatre makes the most sacrilegious offering with a libelous polar fantasy, penned with elfin venom by Jeff Goode, The Eight: Reindeer Monologues. Targeted by all the vile venison gossip and innuendo is none other than jolly Saint Nick. As we listen to Dasher, the lead buck notoriously displaced by Rudolph, we get an unharnessed view of that famed foggy eve. Jealousy or the grape could be fueling this opening testimony.

The plot thickens as other reindeer testify. While learning what abominations make Santa so jolly, we find equal jolts of surprise and scandal in the back stories of the Antler Eight. Cupid is openly gay, Blitzen is a labor agitator, Comet has been through rehab, and Donner is Rudolph's anguished dad. Ah, but Vixen! 'Twas she who unspeakably tempted Santa during the long, long polar night.

Quite a transformation for Tania Kelly, who was last seen as the Country Mouse at ImaginOn before slipping into Vixen's skin-tight hide. She claims to be a victim -- while coming on as anything but innocent. Ryan Stamey is equally provocative as Cupid, moonlighting as Comet. Sheila Snow Proctor as Dancer is a more wholesome hostess than Mrs. Claus if the sensational gossip is true, but Proctor reverts to her best wicked mode as Blitzen. Jeff Johnston as Dasher and Donner is in equally fine form, tossing in a third monologue as the suave Hollywood, apparently Prancer's successor.

Karen Lamb directs this merry blasphemy beautifully, abetted by an outrageous set of uncredited reindeer costumes, crowned by spiky antler hats and wigs. About the only disappointment I can register is in Stan Peal's set design: the polar panorama hardly changes from the previous show of the evening.

Peal's snowy vista -- with a cunning little tongue of runway that thrusts into the audience -- serves quite handsomely for the first show of the night, a remade reprise of The Santaland Diaries. If Actor's Theatre is going to milk this cash cow -- and they have for four years running -- they're doing it with a new set, a new director and a new Crumpet.

Actor's artistic director Chip Decker and his 2007 diarist, Joseph Klosek, are clearly on the same page. Decker wants this thing broadly done, commandeering snips Strauss's Zarathustra and the Star Wars theme in his sound design to score what might be wildly imagined as splashy transitions. Klosek deals in similar coin, hyperactively gesticulating from the get-go, as if he weren't narrating his misadventures as a Santa's helper so much as urgently illustrating them to teammates playing Charades.

I found this crackhead approach to David Sedaris' Yule musings a bit unnerving at first, but the energy of the narrative catches up with Klosek soon enough. When that happens, the 2007 voyage to Macy's Santaland moves to the head of what has been a rather distinguished class at 650 Stonewall, particularly if you've had your fill with mordant cynicism and want a livelier, more vivid experience.

Compound loving deceit with stupid impulse and you have the farcical beginnings of Pineville Dinner Theatre's holiday entrée, Sorry, Wrong Chimney! Within the first 20 minutes, dinner theater bard Jack Sharkey has contrived to give neighbors Samantha Tuttle and Natalie Wheldon ample reason to believe that their husbands are merrily engaged in what would be wife swapping if it were out in the open. Or true.

A mere preamble to Sharkey's ensuing complications. Samantha's husband David is secretly moonlighting as a department store Santa to earn extra money toward a special gift for the newlyweds' first Christmas. When Samantha breaks through David's pretense of working late at the office, she enlists the help of Natalie's husband Bill to hypnotize David and get him back to loving his wife.

Providing a perfectly wrong moment for a Santa Claus burglar to turn up at the Tuttles' and bump into Bill. Mistaken identities lead to mistaken hypnotisms, and the midwinter night's nightmare is peppered with gunshots and a police investigation, steeped in a sauce of frenetic physical comedy. What will a police officer under hypnosis do in a dinner theater face? It's worth waiting through a second intermission to find out.

Tony Wright and Barbara Pratt make their Pineville Dinner debuts as the Weldons, integrating well into the zany holiday spirit of Craig Spradley's screw-subtlety direction. Bud Eason as The Policeman and Kelly Ray as the Santa burglar's babe return auspiciously to the PDT stage for the first time since Having a Wonderful Time -- in the best farce they've staged there since then.

Greta Zandstra and Jerry Colbert, as Samantha and the delusional Kris Kreigle, are certainly the workhorses down at 10403-J Park Road these days. Besides delighting packed houses in Wrong Chimney on Thursday through Saturday evenings, they continue to figure prominently in PDT's Sunday Smoke on the Mountain matinees.

Up for more multiple Santas? Look no further than the mucho caliente Ramìrez sisters, Iliana and Jubelin, both figuring prominently in the Orquesta Carolina big salsa band concerts on Wednesday nights at Grand Central 1000. Ostensibly, Iliana is the headliner, fronting the big band as lead vocalist. Directed by guitarist West Bolz, the ensemble sports a mighty brass section -- most notably lead trumpeter Max Washington and reedman James Jones -- blasting out a smoking playlist behind Iliana's torrid vocals.

But the other Ramìrez in the Santa hat is equally worth watching at the Central Avenue nightspot. She appears before the band takes the stage, giving dance lessons that are sheer delight. Even more impressive is her inexhaustible energy on the dance floor -- matched by an inexhaustible flow of spicy salsa moves and steps -- once the live music-making begins.

Nor is the alluring Jubelin exclusive about whom she shakes booty with. I'd say she managed to ask 60 percent of the men in the house to join her on the floor at one time or another while Sue and I were there. We arrived at 7:30, joined the lesson at 7:45, and Orquesta Carolina was barely into their second set when we departed, well after 10:00.

Queen City Mambo entertained us while the band took a breather. This week's guests are Charlotte Latin Dance, and on Dec. 19, Charlotte Salsa Dance dips in.

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