Our critics weigh in on local theater

700 Sundays. Billy Crystal's Tony Award-winning, box office record-smashing, autobiographical solo show is more nutritious than Grandma's chicken soup, more soothing than bedtime cocoa, and more embarrassingly sentimental than a grown man reminiscing about his bed-wetting days. Performing before a replica of the facade of his childhood home on Long Island, Crystal distills the spirits of the people and places of his youth into wickedly funny archetypes. There's Uncle Jack, whose squinting "Picasso face" Crystal lovingly re-creates by contorting his own physiognomy into an abstract painting. And there's Grandpa Julius, whose flatulence is daftly tempered by the fact that, being half deaf, he can't hear himself fart. The whole show feels like we've been invited into the comedian's house to flip through old family albums and watch home movies. That being said, the production suffers from the uneven relationship between Crystal's infectious borscht belt-style shtick and the confessional, more earnest material about the loss of his father and, eventually, his mother. There's something admirable, brave even, in a comedian turning his back on laughter. But because it oozes with syrupy nostalgia, Crystal's well-intentioned threnody neither satisfies as stand-up comedy nor sparkles enough to feel like real theater. Through Dec. 17 at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor (near Sixth and Market streets), S.F. Tickets are $58-148; call 551-2050 or visit www.shnsf.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Dec. 7.

Black Nativity. The theater has long been compared to organized religion; both the stage and the pulpit offer divine intervention in their own contrasting ways. But the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre's perennial holiday production literally turns the auditorium into a church. Based on poet/playwright Langston Hughes' 1961 "gospel song play" of the same title, Black Nativity mixes text from the Bible, snippets of Hughes' verse, and gospel hymns to recount the story of Jesus Christ's birth as told by members of a jubilant congregation. The production's formidable choir and soloists sing gospel standards such as "Go Tell It on the Mountain" and "Joy to the World" and newer songs (by, among others, principal artist and musical director Robin Hodge-Williams) with the sort of ecstatic fervor that makes even the most belligerent nonbelievers want to leap out of their seats and make a joyful noise unto the Lord. The show's choreography is a bit ungainly: Watching Mary go through 10 minutes of birth pangs in the middle of a particularly emotional hymn, for instance, is nothing short of embarrassing. Yet the vocal pyrotechnics -- particularly from blues diva Faye Carol and the angelic Merkell L. Williams -- make the soul sing. Still, you could probably enjoy a similar experience (without the annoying choreography) at Glide Memorial on any given Sunday for free. Through Dec. 24 at the Lorraine Hansberry Theatre, 620 Sutter (at Mason), S.F. Tickets are $25-32; call 474-8800 or visit www.lhtsf.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Dec. 7.

Brundibar and Comedy on the Bridge. Berkeley Rep's one-act-opera double bill sugarcoats savage criticisms of society with fun, family-friendly stories. Featuring a cast of adults and around 30 children, Brundibar follows the fortunes of a penniless brother and sister as they try to scrape together enough money to buy milk for their bedridden mother. Comedy on the Bridge is an absurd story about a collection of townspeople left stranded on a bridge during wartime owing to some bureaucratic error. The operas are political allegory masquerading as innocent fun. Children's author Maurice Sendak's designs (created with Kris Stone) do much to set up the tension between the magic of children's storytelling and the darkness that lurks beneath. The stage looks like a wondrous, giant picture book, with its elaborate "hand-drawn" townscapes featuring rickety roofs and lampposts touched by golden light. Tony Kushner's librettos are witty and full of lacerating irony. Though visually beautiful and funny, Comedy ultimately flags due to poor vocal technique from some of the adult cast members and the repetitive, stalled action. Brundibar, on the other hand, has more of a fairy-tale flow. Balancing a boyish face and sugary smiles with a Hitler-esque mustache and sudden bouts of childish rage, Euan Morton's fiendish Brundibar is especially memorable -- the stuff of bad dreams. Through Dec. 28 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2015 Addison (at Shattuck), Berkeley. Tickets are $15-64; call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Nov. 23.

Corteo. Clowns are at the very heart of Cirque du Soleil's new touring show, and they take on many forms: There are giant clowns, midget clowns, and clowns in bright, baggy clothes who rampage through the audience, soaking people with fake tears that sprout like garden sprinklers from their eyes. Balanced against all the tomfoolery, though, is a serene, mystical realm. This alternate universe is epitomized by Jean Rabasse's lush, Baroque set design (the hand-painted watercolor curtains, in particular, wouldn't look out of place in a major art museum) and a panoply of ethereal angels who appear in the stratosphere every now and again, quietly watching over the artists, even assisting them on occasion. But despite all the comedy and aesthetic beauty of the production, director Daniele Finzi Pasca's creation of a glittering world that exists somewhere between heaven and Earth, just beyond human reach, is rooted in the abilities of the company's incredible performers. Through Jan. 8 behind SBC Park, Third Street & Terry A. Francois, S.F. Tickets are $31.50-200; call (800) 678-5440 or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com. (Chloe Veltman) Reviewed Nov. 30.

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