Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
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For some theatrical companies, versions of the Charles Dickens classic “A Christmas Carol” have become an annual staple. One such theater is A Noise Within, in Pasadena. When they first moved from Glendale to this, their permanent home, I went to see what they’d done with the time-honored story, and was generally pleased even though there was a most odd and somewhat deflating costuming choice at the end which truly got in the way. Now, four years later, I decided it was probably time to take another look.
When evaluating what spectacle may be added to this tale, one must always remember that Dickens, and many after him up to and including Patrick Stewart, have made theater by simply reading the thing aloud onstage. It is that powerful all on its own. What theatricality one adds must never get in the way of the story itself, and – at least in my book – retain the innate spookiness of the thing which makes Scrooge’s fear real and his conversion more understandable.
A Noise Within’s co-artistic directors, Geoff Elliott and Julia Rodriguez-Elliott, who also co-direct this production, have honored this concept most of the time. There are still signature dollops of ensemble in anachronistic diaphanous fluff and bowler hats, but they are mostly enhancing the scary or dreamlike bits. Thus, in Elliott’s adaptation, the original author is treated as star of the piece.
Freddy Douglas acts as narrator, in contemporary dress, reading Dickens’ evocative descriptions and setting up each scene. Geoff Elliott gives Scrooge the appropriate crustiness and self-absorption, and makes his gradual softening seem more organic to his own history. Eric Curtis Johnson creates a gentle, bookish Cratchit, which balances well against Elliott’s character.
The ensemble accompanying these central figures gives each of a wide variety of characters individuality and interest, powering the story along.
Among the characters they create, Jill Hill gives Mrs. Cratchit a lovely balance of humanity and authority, creating a sense of unity and family. Indeed. Savannah Gilmore, Jack Elliott, Samuel Genghis Christian and Rigel Blue Pierce-English work well together to create a happy, if impoverished Cratchit household, joined by Eli Stuart’s genuinely charming Tiny Tim. Rafael Goldstein gives Scrooge’s nephew Fred a gentle nature and radiant optimism, Alison Elliott gives a quiet bitterness to Scooge’s fiancé, Belle, and Jeremy Rabb creates an almost ferociously sad aspect as Marley’s ghost.
As for the beneficial visiting ghosts, Deborah Strang’s otherworldly sprite works well as the Ghost of Christmas Past, emphasizing the warmth of Scrooge’s younger self. Stephen Weingartner’s huge and rather odd-looking Ghost of Christmas Present still embodies the essence of Dickens’ cheerful view of the holiday, and the underpinnings of deprivation which need to be addressed.
In a most exciting change from my previous experience of ANW’s version of this classic, the unnamed Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come offers up a far more Dickensian, darkly hooded, spooky, silent figure which, when combined with an impressive headstone, cements Scrooge’s rising terror at what might become of him. Jeanine A. Ringer’s mobile set and prop pieces help the necessarily episodic tale flow as a single piece, as the story itself does.
In short, the A Noise Within production of “A Christmas Carol” offers a genuine treat, and stays generally true to the Dickensian. Stay after the show for a chance of photographs with the major characters.
What: “A Christmas Carol” When: through December 23, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday December 21 and 22, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: from $25, with student and Sunday rush tickets available for certain performances Info: (626) 356-3100 ex 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org
There was quite a while when I had simply had enough of staged versions of “A Christmas Carol.” The smaller theater attempts tended to fall into one of two categories: the bare bones of the tale itself used as a catalyst for street scenes heavy on small children and the singing of multitudinous Christmas carols, or a star turn for one actor determined to squeeze as much stage time out of Ebenezer Scrooge as possible, whether or not that was of benefit to the story. In either case, I felt I’d been there, and done that.
This year I decided to stick a toe back into the sea of productions, by visiting two of them. The first was at the Sierra Madre Playhouse, a small, community theater beginning to grow in polish. The second was A Noise Within, the professional classical company newly moved to their own theater in Pasadena after a long and checkered relationship with Glendale. What I hoped was that their versions of the Dickens classic would have a greater connection to the story than to some of what I’d found in theaters in years past.
Now, understand that I have a deep and abiding love for the original story. Dickens was remarkable in his details, creating a world of struggle and heartbreak from which his moral tale rises, and delivering a significant undercurrent of creepiness to keep the thing edgy. Frustratingly, adaptations for the stage at Christmas time, when the object is to scoop young and old into the theater to be warmed once again by Tiny Tim’s “God bless us, every one,” tend to lean toward the warm rather than the harsh or the creepy. Much of what Dickens intended to say gets lost or at least diluted. So, what I look for is a production where that does not happen – at least, not much.
There is good news and bad news from my foray with dueling Scrooges.
At SMP, despite a truly annoying (and often anachronistic) sound track which plays behind – and sometimes drowns out – the action, and the aforementioned carol singing, the spirit of the story stays central. Here director Christina Harris has written her own adaptation. It proves better than many of those available for production by small companies. James B. Harnagel makes a respectable Scrooge. Karl Maschek and Brad Satterwhite give character to Bob Cratchit and Scrooge’s nephew Fred.
Indeed, some of the moments stand out, especially Sarah Watson’s turn as the Ghost of Christmas Past, aided by Liz Peterson’s costuming. Though the regrettable tendency to have a girl play Tiny Tim with her hair tucked up in a hat still prevails, Kiara Lisette Gamboa gives it her all. More importantly, the scenes close to the end, with Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come (Matthew Kerchner) have the classic hooded figure which has come to embody the presentiment of doom.
At ANW, the text is honored most greatly, with a modern-dress narrator (Robertson Dean) walking in and out of the minimalist set to deliver much of his description from the original story itself. Co-director Geoff Elliott, as the famed curmudgeon, actually manages to make Scrooge’s transformation believable, in part by making it gradual rather than sudden. Mitchell Edmonds gives Marley’s ghost a definite, though not completely Dickensian, foreboding, and the entire staging of that haunting works particularly well.
The setting, increasingly part fairyland and part circus, lends itself to some of the brutality of Dickens’ world, and makes for interestingly non-typical Christmas ghosts, though it also provides some head-scratching moments. Still, Deborah Strang’s Rackham-like Ghost of Christmas Past works, as did the oddly interpreted, but still satisfying Ghost of Christmas Present (Alan Blumenfeld). Damaso J. Rodriguez – yes, a boy – makes a charming, slightly haunting Tiny Tim, Stephen Rockwell a solidly humble Bob Cratchit, and Rafael Goldstein a particularly likable Fred.
Yet, all this falls away toward the end as the story diverts from the cloaked, dark Ghost of Christmas Future in favor of what can only be described as an Ent. Lumbering and tree-like instead of dark and otherworldly, Kevin Rico Angulo’s costume demands he gesture with long twigs – physically inarticulate. It proves such an odd choice it becomes a distraction from the rest of the play.
Still, in each of these versions, the padding is minimal and the timing sharp. It may seem like comparing an apple and an orange to look at a small, lightly funded company and place it up against a comparatively well-heeled professional group, but both have their joys. Both also avoided the largest traps: hyper-sentimentality, triviality or the side-tracking of the story altogether. To be sure, the original is so good that Patrick Stewart made it all the way to Broadway just standing in front of an audience and reading the thing. If it doesn’t get lost or made pale, then this becomes something worth seeing as the holiday’s approach.
What: “A Christmas Carol” When: Through December 23, 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday Where: Sierra Madre Playhouse, 87 W. Sierra Madre Blvd in Sierra Madre How Much: $25 adults, $22 students, $15 children 12 and under Info: (626) 355-4318 or http://www.sierramadreplayhouse.org
What: “A Christmas Carol When: Through December 23, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday evenings, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday matinees Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: $40 – $52 Info: (626) 356-3100 or http://www.ANoiseWithin.org
To tell you the truth, the best production of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” I ever saw involved Patrick Stewart, a chair, a table and a book from which he read. The story itself proves so engrossing it is hard to find a reason to over-embellish it, even to draw crowds into a theater at holiday time. With its quick lesson on the need for compassion, the ugliness of greed and the concept that happiness is less about money than human connection, not to mention the description of Marley – one of the scariest ghost appearances in literature – Dickens has supplied everything.
This is a central reason why the version of this timeless tale at Covina Center for the Performing Arts proved so irritating. The new adaptation by Frank Minano decides to add to, and change, the Dickens original.
The padding is superfluous. Belle, the love of Scrooge’s young life, is followed into older age to show her as a shining example of humanity. We get to watch Marley die and Scrooge chuckle over the body as he signs the death certificate, making Scrooge pathologically cruel rather than Dickens’ myopic skinflint.
And, once “reborn,” Scrooge doesn’t supply a huge turkey for his clerk’s family’s feast. After bounding about his room like a madman, he arrives at the Cratchits, hands them the turkey for later, and invites them all to his nephew’s house for a Christmas party and dinner to which he alone has been invited – a clash of Britain’s stratified society and a burden on the same nephew he earlier points out has little money.
Minano doesn’t stop there. He also stars as Scrooge, and helps to direct, leaving no one but fellow director Hope Kaufman to rein in his star turn. Scrooge’s moments onstage stretch and stretch, and much of the last act is played in the same overemotional key. This is a pity, as from a production standpoint, discounting the lead and the padding of the script, this is a pretty good show.
Standouts in the huge cast include Jill Gerber as the Ghost of Christmas Past, Michael Buczynski as the suitably boisterous Ghost of Christmas Present, and Max Herzfeld as a particularly personable Fred. Also worthy of note are Brett Chapin as Bob Cratchit and Gehrig Baes as a satisfyingly unsaccharine Tiny Tim.
As always, carolers have been inserted into the drama, but here they are very good carolers and their songs are used to cover set changes. It works. The set, by Mark MacKenzie follows the CCPA tradition of making modular, multi-story creations which keep the set changes short and the segues smooth. The costuming by Linda Vick is fairly accurate, though someone should inform the men in the cast that Victorian gentlemen of Scrooge or Fred’s class almost never took off their coats in public, never at a party, and certainly not if they had – which they didn’t in those days – a vest with no back.
So, although this “A Christmas Carol” is fantastically overblown, it still has things to recommend it. Unfortunately, with the carols and the additional material, it is also long, and gets longer if Minano is really on a roll in the second act – a tough thing for the small children in the audience. In the end, my advice to any and all who choose to dramatize this famous short story is this: just tell the story. Really. Dickens knew his characters and his audience. Trust him.
What: “A Christmas Carol” When: Through December 18, 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday Where: Covina Center for the Performing Arts, 104 N. Citrus Ave. in Covina How Much: $28, VIP level $38 Info: (626) 331-8133 or http://www.covinacenter.com