Chicago Theatre Review
Holiday Redemption through Music
A Christmas Carol: the Musical
Charles Dickens’ famous cautionary tale about the old miser who learns to love Christmas can be found in more variations than ice cream at a Baskin-Robbins. However, for audiences who enjoy their Scrooge with a bit more color and spectacle to spice up their holiday fare, this version will hit the spot.
Transforming this classic story into a stage musical, famed composer of stage and screen, Alan Menken (“Little Shop of Horrors,” “Newsies,” “Beauty and the Beast”), with book & lyrics by Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens (“Ragtime,” “Seussical”) created this mammoth musical to fill New York’s Madison Square Garden in 1994. The show became a Big Apple holiday hit for the next nine years, followed by a 2004 televised version starring Kelsey Grammer. The Marriott’s Theatre for Young Audiences recently produced a shorter version of this same adaptation that featured an abbreviated cast. TATC’s production boasts 27 cast members, most of whom play multiple roles. It may be one of this theatre’s largest productions ever.
Filling the stage with his crabbiness (and eventual salvation) and an unbelievably rich, glorious baritone voice is Chicago and New York leading character actor, Larry Adams. Whether shooing away charity collectors, stifling carolers or denying a bereaved widower the money to bury his poor wife (“Nothing to Do With Me”), Adams blusters his way around Richard and Jacqueline Penrod’s sumptuous and versatile Victorian set. The show’s extended opening number, “A Jolly Good Time,” captures all the hustle and bustle of holiday shoppers and street entertainers, ending with Scrooge arriving back at his modest flat on Christmas Eve. There he’s visited by Jacob Marley’s Ghost (a delightful Ron Keaton), a spookier, chain-wrapped version of Santa Claus, who comes tumbling down Scrooge’s chimney warning him of visits from three more spirits. Marley is accompanied by a chorus of other ghosts providing a show-stopping production number filled with horrifying special effects (“Link by Link”).
The first to arrive of course, is the Ghost of Christmas Past played with pixie perfection by Megan Long. She spends the most time with Scrooge transporting him through various life-changing moments from his childhood and young adult years (the beautifully sung “Lights of Long Ago”). We see poor little Ebenezer left behind as other young apprentices head home for the holidays. Soon afterwards we see the young boy witnessing his father being hauled off to debtors prison. In another rousing, full-company production number, Scrooge enjoys reliving the enjoyment of the annual holiday party given by his former employer (“Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball”). He recalls winning and then losing the one love of his life (“A Place Called Home,” beautifully sung by Kristin O’Connell and Patrick Tierney as Emily and Young Scrooge). Through these vignettes the audience learns how and why Scrooge became the solitary, miser we know.
Jonathan Butler-Duplessis, so impressive in Paramount’s exciting Fall production of “In the Heights,” arrives with gusto and flair as the Ghost of Christmas Present (“Abundance and Charity”). He offers Ebenezer a view of the Cratchits where his employee Bob (a subtly pleasing performance by Matthias Austin) celebrates a meager holiday dinner with his wife, children and Tiny Tim (sweetly played by young Killian Hughes). This quiet number evolves into another lavish production number (“Christmas Together”) that also features Scrooge’s nephew Fred (David Hathaway, in fine voice), sailors, drunks and assorted Christmas Tarts.
Scrooge’s last visitor delivers the story’s darkest moments as the miser comes to realize that his life, as it’s been lived up until now, amounts to nothing (“Dancing On Your Grave”). As the Ghost of Christmas Future, Jen Donohoo literally dances all over Scrooge’s coffin in a production number featuring cowled monks and robotic gravediggers. Raising his exquisite voice to the rafters, Adams delivers the soul-searching “Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today” as he finally recognizes the error of his way. Ebenezer’s redemption on Christmas morning is played out in full-company reprises of several songs, ending with the beautiful “God Bless Us Everyone” and sending the audience home humming.
My only quibble is in some of Bill Pullinsi’s direction. While often beautiful and sensitive, there are times when he’s staged his actors near the audience but facing upstage, focusing on the action. In doing so the audience not only misses these actors’ facial reactions, but also the object of their focus is entirely blocked. The result is the frustration of where we’re suppose to be looking. There are also some long scene changes that leave the audience waiting in the dark. A couple technical elements that should be remedied are the giant bedposts that block our view of Scrooge and the balcony supports that mask Tiny Tim during his vocal solo. These could be easily fixed. Then there’s the question of why the act break was changed. “Abundance and Charity” was written to end Act I on a high note, while “Christmas Together,” beginning simply with Tiny Tim’s quiet solo and building to a buoyantly festive production number, rekindles the energy for Act II. As it’s performed here, Act I just seems to end while Act II opens with two huge consecutive production numbers. This makes the show feel unbalanced.
However for all these criticisms, this is really a truly sensational holiday vehicle and one that TATC might consider as an annual event. From Linda Fortunato’s stellar choreography, William Underwood’s lavish musical direction and orchestral accompaniment, a hard-working cast and ensemble cloaked in Brenda Winstead’s impressive array of colorful period costumes and supported by Shelley Strasser-Holland’s atmospheric lighting design, this glorious production is a welcome addition to the menu of holiday treats to be sampled in Chicago.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented Nov. 14-Dec. 22 by Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, IN.
Tickets are available by calling 219-836-3255 or by visiting www.TheatreAtTheCenter.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found at www.theatreinchicago.com.