What a difference a year makes. Almost exactly one year ago, I saw freeFall Theatre’s A Christmas Carol: A New Musical, and wrote in CL that it was well-made but failed to capitalize on all the fearsomeness and spookiness of Dickens’ original. After all, Carol is a ghost story first and foremost, beginning with Marley’s death and then leading us to consider the possibility of Scrooge’s demise, too — not to mention Tiny Tim’s.
With four resolute specters (Marley and Christmases Past, Present and Future) appearing on the way to Scrooge’s self-reinvention, this show should be not only warming but chilling, and we should feel some kind of catharsis when we realize that we too, like the story’s villain, may be headed unrepentant to an unforgiving grave. Last year’s Carol, I said, was “a lively pageant that never challenges the Scrooge within us.” I lamented that fact, while enjoying the show’s “bright, highly professional” veneer.
Well, thanks to director/actor Eric Davis, the current freeFall Carol supplies all that was missing a year ago. The result: a nearly ideal pageant. Aptly enough, it’s Davis himself who begins the recalibration with a wonderfully frightening turn as Marley’s Ghost, who has come to warn Ebenezer Scrooge that his selfish, miserly life will certainly end in horror if he doesn’t shape up. Davis’ Marley is enraged, anguished, bestial, ghoulish — everything that a good ghost ought to be when trying to shock an ill-tempered miser to his senses. That Davis’ inclusion in this year’s Carol is key to its success is further demonstrated when this talented artist shows up later in act one as young Scrooge’s exuberant employer Fezziwig. Davis’ Fezziwig is joyous, robust, a life-lover who couldn’t be more different from Davis’ Marley. Add to the ledger Davis’ fine singing voice — one of the best in the show — and you have a perfect example of what good can happen when the boss man decides to get personally involved. Add Kelly Pekar’s blowsily angelic Ghost of Christmas Past, and Anthony Murphy’s imposing and sinister Ghost of Christmas Present, and you’ve got a whole cadre of spirits who might have stepped right out of Dickens’ inkwell. And it surely doesn’t hurt that this time the 10-foot-tall Ghost of Christmas Future (Joel Gennari) seems confident on his stilts.
Then there’s Steven Patterson as Scrooge. This is a memorable impersonation, one that takes the whole concept of embittered cupidity to shocking extremes. This Scrooge has no redeeming social value, no extenuating circumstances, no alibis and no secret softness. When he says “Bah, Humbug!” he’s not just rejecting Christmas cheer — he’s saying that he’s examined the holiday with a Nietzschean exhaustiveness and found it a scam, a fiction, and a fraud no honest human can credit. As employee Bob Cratchit, the impeccable Chris Crawford is one of the truly good guys, a patient laborer who refuses to despise Scrooge no matter how much the latter gives him the reason to do just that.
Other standouts in the large (18-performer) cast include Heather Baird as young Ebenezer’s love Belle, and Michael Shenefelt as Scrooge’s nephew Fred. Little Morgan Myers’ Tiny Tim isn’t the scene-stealer that one wants him to be, though; a disappointment that I won’t be so Scrooge-like as to expand upon.
So why do I say this is only a nearly ideal production? The problem is the songs, with lyrics by Keith Ferguson and music by Bruce Greer. Almost without exception, these tunes and these lyrics are as bland and white-bread as a Currier and Ives print. Yes, there are some boisterous arrangements and lovely harmonies, but except for the Brecht/Weillian “Better Off Dead” (sung by a delightful team of grave-robbers) and a few traditional carols, these anthems say next to nothing and say it in instantly forgettable arrangements. On the other hand, the irrepressible cast, skillfully directed by Davis, approaches each musical number as if it were pure gold, so we can almost be persuaded that we’re being enraptured. Speaking of gold, the many period costumes by Mike & Kathy Buck Designs are nothing short of terrific, and Greg Bierce and Matt Davis’ set, a bare stage backed by huge cutouts of London buildings (and differently furnished from scene to scene), is all that’s really necessary to carry us back to Victorian England.
Bottom line: a handsome production with just the right balance of the macabre and the joyful. If you’re looking for a holiday spectacle, be sure to put it on your wish list.
Gender essentialism. Thumbs down.
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