Tuesday, December 4, 2012
Theater review: DTC spares no bell or whistle in A Christmas Carol
Expect explosions, light flashes, and pyrotechnics galore.
OAK LAWN It’s astonishing!
This year’s production of Richard Hellesen’s adaptation of A Christmas Carol by Dallas Theater Center is in its 8th year. This is a challenge for a company which prides itself on its originality and excellence: how to keep it fresh. Every year theater companies pull out their finery and present their holiday specials, so there’s a lot of competition for the holiday dollar. DTC excels every year, probably to the top of the list in this part of the country.
It’s hard to consider the breadth of influence Charles Dickens had on literature. A Google search gets 71 million hits on his name. According to literary scholars, he’s probably the “greatest creator of character in English fiction after Shakespeare... [His] characters are amongst the most memorable in English literature.” And thus we find Ebenezer Scrooge, the most famous Christmas character in the most famous Christmas story beyond the Bible. He’s at once entertaining, tragic, pathetic, and lovable as he finds redemption on Christmas Eve.
Directed this year by Joel Ferrell, A Christmas Carol has become a mainstay. What’s the message this year? Ferrell reports, “[O]ne of the things that has always been the most daunting and unnerving ... is the idea that a reconciliation of someone who is as lost as Scrooge —- and aren’t we all at some point in our lives? -— is actually completely and thoroughly possible. Part of the great reclamation is not just whether Scrooge can embrace it; it’s whether we can forgive him.”
Like Lear and Macbeth, Scrooge is a role most male actors want to play. It has a huge range of character possibilities and actors salivate at the thought of putting their special mark on the role.
This year the honor goes to Chamblee Ferguson, and he was astonishing! His range of emotions, acting choices and physical acting styles were so full I was struck from the opening moment. He took the stage, and I couldn’t tear my eyes from him for two hours. His reactions at the mayhem and activities around him were amazing. He could have been silent and I would have gotten his story.
Speaking of mayhem, the production team created a show with the technical finery to rival Broadway. The stage was sparse yet effective in its nuances. There was ample space for acting and set piece movement on a turntable that allowed the kind of movement we saw in Les Misérables for years, surrounded with dingy-colored circular walls that suggest a dirty 1840s England. This appeared to be a set which Bob Lavallee used in past productions of this show at DTC. His huge back wall with many clocks showing different times were a constant reminder of the jarring disjointed timelessness of Scrooge’s story. Dimly lit windows of London created a dimension to the town and tiny point lights in the back wall posed as either stars or distant house lights of London. The floor contained a huge bookcase doubling as Scrooge’s office which turned around to form his bedroom. A four-poster bed travelled around the stage as Scrooge experienced different ghosts in the story. Things dropped out of the fly to reveal different scenes, sparse furniture was carried onstage by actors to suggest Cratchit's and Fred’s house, and for many scenes the stage was covered in a thick fog. I often felt a chill when the fog appeared. I don’t know if it was real.
Matthew Richards used light flashes and strongly-focused spotlights that created heavy shadows, especially through the fog cover and subtle colors of lights that became active story-tellers themselves. Curtis Craig created a sound track with extreme highs and lows that rumbled through the theater, surrounding me so the sounds reached out and shook my bones. This lighting and sound, combined with many stage effects, created a full theater physical experience, much like some of the rides at Disney World which at times was very loud, bright, and jarring but completely engaged the audience and forced us to step into the story. There was no one sleeping here.
You might imagine the characters in this show were dressed in their mid-19th century costumes according to their place in society. But in fact Wade Laboissonniere filled the stage with a large variety of clothing pieces that were often entertaining in themselves. As most of the characters also played ensemble characters, each had different clothing for each character. Of course, the chained Ghost of Jacob Marley, played with a suitable lament from the grave by Brian Gonzales, magically appeared for his stern warning for Scrooge, clanked around the stage with explosive outbursts that moved everything, and suddenly disappeared and it was his costume which made him appear magical and ominous.
The most notable characters in Scrooge’s life are Bob Cratchit and Fezziwig, important because these are the examples of Scrooge’s hopeful character. The ever-faithful Bob Cratchit tries to balance his work ethic with family needs and Fezziwig shows the full spirit of the holiday spirit. Scrooge has been both of these and needs to remember them to fulfill his destiny.
Steven Michael Walters and Christie Vela showed their Bob and Martha Cratchit with an admirable picture of a family living within its means and taking care of its own. They show the underside of British life but the admirable response to poverty, completely unlike Scrooge’s view of poverty. They also live with the specter of Tiny Tim’s affliction, which was life-threatening at the time. This required Walters and Vela to make acting choices that took the family through happy and sad, angry and compassionate, and hopeful and heartbroken. They excelled at this job.
Fezziwig is a bombastic factory owner in Scrooge’s past, both his mentor and shining example of the best of business owners. In some versions, such as this one, Fezziwig’s grand ball is a major scene. Ferrell and Musical Director Lindy Heath Cabe created a memorable musical number and dance that lifted spirits in the midst of this dark story. Hassan El-Amin as Fezziwig and Liz Mikel as Mrs. Fezziwig combined to sing and dance up a storm and the festivities returned Scrooge to his fondest memories and had the audience light and hopeful before descending back into the depths.
The ghosts that carry Scrooge across his lifetime are important. Here they were both menacing and powerful with their many ghostly effects. Their costumes were beautifully descriptive and created three different personalities. Blake Hackler as the Ghost of Christmas Past was playfully stern in his silver-blue 1700s-style ship captain costume as he explored Scrooge’s past. He was pixie-like and I loved watching his facial dead-pan as he forced Scrooge to face the causes of his disposition.
The Ghost of Christmas Present was played by Liz Mikel as a strong buxom woman of substantial power. Her voice boomed as she guided Scrooge through the streets of London to the houses of Scrooge’s nearest friends. Fred, played with an implacable intention to maintain the spirit of the day despite his uncle’s “humbug” by Lee Trull, showed a middle-class personality. Bob Cratchit of course showed Scrooge the lower class side of life. Mikel’s Ghost was simultaneously intimidating and gentle and Mikel relished in commanding the stage so fully. The Ghost of Christmas Future was a no-name, no-voice, tall creature that showed Scrooge the depths of his potential future, yet shocked him to his knees.
Hellesen’s adaptation is a musical piece which depends on a large ensemble to sing and deliver exposition and narration throughout the story. Each member of this ensemble played numerous parts seamlessly and sang and spoke singly and in groups. Their singing voices were credible and the choruses they created, both in small groups and as a whole ensemble, were really beautiful. I had a bit of trouble understanding the words of the opening ensemble songs but that cleared up over time and the major characters and ensemble speakers were perfect.
Some actors are in grade school and middle school. All are accomplished theater kids and, in some cases, commercial actors. But a show which depends so heavily on these character roles relies on the kids’ ability to work under high pressure. These kids excelled in every way, both in their songs, some of which were solos, their lines, and their character work.
Hellesen writes of his adaptation, “This is a story of redemption –- and that means you have to pass through the darkness to really appreciate that warm, bright light of Christmas morning.”
Many theaters turn this story into a family-friendly story suitable for the pabulum crowd and really water it down to meaningless Saturday morning entertainment. I applaud DTC for sticking with Hellesen’s adaptation and expanding it into its fully awesome power. This audience, which included many families and young children, not only was entertained by the fury of the technical production but was also educated and challenged to think about the themes of this story as Ferrell presented it.
Make a plan to see this spectacular celebration of Christmas spirit this year. It’s undeniably the best version I’ve seen and Dallas Theater Center made this one of the best productions of any style this year. You will walk away with joy, knowing you have experienced Scrooge at his best.
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