During the Christmas season, as a way of competing with The Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall, the Paramount Theatre, later renamed simply Theatre at Madison Square Garden, began its own holiday musical special. Performed annually during December for ten years from 1994, A Christmas Carol: The Musical appeared on the wide Paramount stage to great success, and it’s this production that you can now see at Peoria’s Arizona Broadway Theatre running until December 27.
Outside of ASU Gammage, the wide forum at ABT under the direction of Joseph Martinez is probably the most appropriate staging for this particular adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic in the valley. Most London and Broadway theatres tend to be smaller than audiences imagine, and while that works for the majority of productions, even large-scale musicals, this specific version of A Christmas Carol needs something grander. After all, it’s not really Broadway, neither is it musical theatre. In fact, it doesn’t really have a lot to do with Dickens, either. It’s a brazen, yuletide extravaganza, a dazzling variation of a grandstanding, seasonal Variety show where the songs, the dancing and all the eye-popping special effects with twinkly lights are used in service to tell a ghost story of Christmas.
Beginning with the atmospheric sounds of clanging chimes, ABT’s plush, Christmas red curtains rise, revealing Paul Bridgeman’s town square set design of a picture-book, snowy London, adapted for ABT by Michaela Lynne Stein. The whole look has a similar feel and appearance of a European holiday Pantomime where all key characters meet or pass each other in the one area within the first few minutes. In this version, Scrooge’s dingy counting house where he and his assistant Bob Cratchit labor is nowhere to be seen. For a production like this, such a cramped, cold setting would never work. Instead, all exchanges are done in the brightly lit town square, including the big opening song Jolly Good Time where Scrooge and practically the whole company set the scene. No one speaks their lines; they enter the stage and broadly declare them as though vying for the position of London’s town crier.
Dickens didn’t invent Christmas, but his short, cautionary tale had a lot to do with the way the season is celebrated today. Christmas was actually a dark affair for most people, something enjoyed only by those who could afford it, but as the holiday became official and factory and office workers were later given the day to be with families, over the years it slowly developed into the bright, magical time we now associate with the season. This production doesn’t reflect Dickens, but what it does is take that familiar story of ghosts and redemption, removes the cold, bleak, biting atmosphere of an unforgiving London and presents it with bright, sparkling colors, songs, and large scale dance sequences played out to a picturesque, nostalgic Victorian backdrop that never really was. A Christmas Carol: The Musical may have little to do with Dickens, but it has everything to do with showbiz.
The cast at ABT may not equal the numbers of the original Madison Square Garden production, but it remains considerably sizeable. Leading the way is James Rio as Ebenezer Scrooge, played not so much as a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner but as a tall standing, robust and healthy looking well-groomed man with a continual bad attitude to others who can’t pay their bills. James makes an effectively imposing figure of a neatly-dressed miser, plus he sings well, as evident with the song Yesterday, Tomorrow and Today, ending with Scrooge finding himself not in a grave but in his bedroom on Christmas morning.
As adapted by Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens, with lyrics by Ahrens and set to music by Alan Menken, in this version, Scrooge actually meets all three ghosts in the town square before his fateful night, only he doesn’t realize it, and all three are cast well. Richard Koons plays the jovial Ghost of Christmas Present as if Santa himself had arrived. Laurie Trygg is the silent Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come (changed in this version as the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Be) who sheds her old, blind lady costume and becomes an exquisite ballerina, literally dancing on Ebenezer’s grave, while best and most amusing of all is Renee Kathleen Koher as the Ghost of Christmas Past, played not so much like the androgynous man-child of the book but as an excitable Grecian Goddess finding fun at every turn. She’s a mixture of Carol Kane in Bill Murray’s Scrooged and a playful Lady Gaga wearing Christmas lights as an accompanying halo.
Technical credits are, as expected, of a high order. Amanda Gran must have worked overtime on the wigs, Mark 4Man’s six-member band sounds like a full-rounded orchestra, while Kurtis W. Overby’s lively choreography fills the wide stage and makes the dance at Fezziwigs’s ball appear like the grandest of all affairs in London. Tim Monson’s lighting coupled with Will Pickens’ sound are used to maximum effect throughout, particularly when Jacob Marley (Michael O’Brien under ghostly makeup and buried in chains) rises out of the ground like a smoky, Las Vegas magic trick and brings all those other ghosts out of the woodwork to haunt Scrooge with the humorous song and dance number Link by Link.
Martha Clarke’s original costume design, aided with additional designs from Lottie Dixon, nicely capture the flavor of well-attired Londoners. They all look as they might appear on a Victorian Christmas card rather than the drab and unkempt rags that most of the working-class of the time would look, which is fine in a tune-filled variety spectacle such as this. But for a poverty-stricken man earning a meager fifteen shillings a week, having Bob Cratchit (a pleasant and likable Jamie Parnell) dressed in neatly pressed pants, a bowtie (!) and a checkered jacket looks more like a healthy, American burlesque comedian rather than a Dickensian pauper on the edge of starvation.
If you’re a Dickens purist, then this is not your show, but it was never meant to be. It’s a song and dance holiday extravaganza with Dickens as a starting point. There’s even a crowd-pleasing line of tap-dancing showgirls in the second half. When the show’s book veers away from the novel it’s always noticeable, as when Scrooge’s fiancée Belle is renamed Emily (an amiable Hannah Bentley), but the show succeeds in adding fun elements of its own, including some new dialog. When a young Scrooge (Jospeh DePietro) tells Mrs. Fezziwig (Eleonore Thomas) that he’s saving his money for a rainy day, she responds, “This is England. It rains every day.” The humorist in Dickens would have approved.
Pictures courtesy of Arizona Broadway Theatre/MikeBPhotot.net
For more including times, dates and tickets, CLICK HERE for the ABT website.