Friday, November 30, 2012
Theater review: Only a scrooge couldn’t love Plaza Theatre Company’s classic take on A Christmas Carol
It's a superb cast who clearly love performing this show.
CLEBURNE At the impressionable age of eight I was cast in my very first full production musical - A Christmas Carol. Memories of that experience are still fresh in my mind: Fezziwig's party, how scary the Ghost of Christmas Future seemed at the time, and Tiny Tim's final exclamation, "God bless us, every one!" Since then, my Christmas holidays are never complete without Charles Dickens' beloved tale of the old miser Scrooge and his story of redemption. I was more than thrilled to jump at the chance to see Plaza Theatre Company's production.
It's difficult to surpass such performances as Alastair Sim or the re-telling of the classic tale via Jim Hensen's Muppets (both of which are my favorite film renditions), but there's something special about seeing this show on stage during the holidays that makes the season seem a bit more magical. What I've discovered in particular is how each company and director's vision of Dickens' classic differ from each other. It's almost an adventure to blindly walk into a production not knowing what to expect. JaceSon P. Barrus' adaptation does not disappoint.
Unlike any other version I have seen, Barrus' script uses ample text straight from Dickens' novel as narrative for the actors to tell the story in addition to acting their parts. At the helm is Dickens himself, an actor that also doubles as another character, chronicling the tones and undercurrents of each scene, sometimes speaking particular physical actions of another actor into existence, adding a hint of comedy. The narrator role is reserved mainly for Dickens but switches every so often to another actor where the difference between narrative and dialogue tends to briefly get lost in the shuffle before moving back to Dickens.
Many of the cast members have multiple roles, some of which are purposefully symbolic of the spirit or theme of their counterpart. For example, the character of Present is observed in more than just his spirit form within another brief role.
Barrus' production is also a musical in the sense that it has music but is far from the normal song and dance routine. Audiences are privy to an array of classic Christmas carols with elegant arrangements accompanied by a fine, well-blended ensemble.
As Co-Directors, JaceSon and Tina Barrus by now should show signs of tiring if their amount of times to perform/produce A Christmas Carol is accurate. Instead, the show is a prime example of years of dedication and appreciation for each aspect of this production put on by Plaza every other year. More significantly is the attention given to the set design and background. The mural painting by Julie Lee is immaculate. It's like walking into a scene by Thomas Kincade.
Scrooge's bed chamber, as part of JaceSon Barrus' set design, is constructed to allow the actors plenty of movement on top of an around key props. The little room remains untouched every other scene and is a nice hub for the lead actors to return to during each transition. In conjunction with props done by Tammi Phillips, scenes are easily interchangeable and flow smoothly. The movement created by the ensemble is swift and precise with no lag time weighing down the pace of the show as they rotate set pieces.
Lighting is instrumental in conveying the many different moods of Scrooge's journey, another key part also designed by JaceSon Barrus. The cold, dark hues that surround Ebenezer's home and office only magnify in the wake of the entrance and departure of another character bringing warmth and light. The contrast among the spirits are correspondingly different, each character's trait easily identified by the lighting. Barrus also enhances a unique effect for the graveyard scene that looks and feels spooky in addition to Scrooge's already dire situation.
G. Aaron Siler continues to prove he has a knack for special effects. A variety of vocal distortions adds depth to the otherworldly characters and feels genuine rather than over the top. Siler's video graphics, in respect to Marley's appearance on Scrooge's door knob, are pleasantly disturbing and surprisingly well done.
The costumes, designed by Kara Barnes are standard Victorian Era. For scenes such as the Fezziwig's party, yards of colorful velvet and lace cover hoop skirts and the women brandish long ringlets to complete their upper-class look while the men look chic in coattails and top hats. In contrast, the Cratchits do not look as poor as expected, however other indigent characters such as Old Joe are slightly lower on the social ladder and their costumes reflect so. Barnes' work on the three spirits gives each a well-balanced look that ties into the lighting design and enhances the mood of their scenes. Scrooge dons the classic black cape, and with a simple red scarf at the finale his transformation is complete.
The use of Christmas carols does not necessarily call for typical song and dance numbers and instead the cast is consigned to performing often as a chorus in the wings with a solo placed here or there. The one scene that does call for a show-stopping number is the Fezziwig party which is a standout performance due to Tabitha Barrus' choreography. "Fum, Fum, Fum" is a jolly carol aptly chosen for the first dance number followed by a festive musical interlude where Barrus interjects an English country dance of sorts. The highlight of the dance is when the music swells and the entire cast is moving in unison in one long line intersecting the stage from one corner to the other. The big finale, though somewhat predictable, has the cast executing a Right and Left Grand (a giant circle with the men and women moving in opposite directions) filling the entire stage and concluding the number on a high note.
Musically, the ensemble is well-rehearsed and blends amazingly for being split into three, sometimes four, sections spread around the stage. There is that awkward moment when the groups are trying to exit and tend to bottleneck at the door but that's only if you're looking.
The man behind the “Bah, Humbug” is Steven Lindsay. As Ebenezer Scrooge, Lindsay is grievously greedy and self-involved when we are introduced to the character. As the night progresses, Lindsay brings out a spry, quirkiness in Scrooge that the audience loves. What's more important than his scripted dialogue is his reactions because Scrooge is also watching these visions unfold as a spectator. Lindsay is an open book of emotions, never taking for granted the times when the focus is not on him. My favorite moment of Lindsay's is during Fred's holiday party. The cast sings a beautiful rendition of “The First Noel” and there is a moment when Lindsay is looking on at his nephew, the two sharing center stage. I can't place the intended emotion behind it, but to me it’s the first glimpse of Scrooge recognizing his love for his nephew and ultimately his family.
Jonathan Metting is respectable and lovable as Dickens, the narrator of the story. Metting has a playful quality that is welcoming, almost like a grown up Artful Dodger, and audiences will want to follow him on this journey. Of the rare solos heard throughout the musical, Metting carries the bulk of the work. His performance of “O Holy Night” is strong and clear, using his full voice at the song’s highest part and his solo in “The First Noel” is equally commanding. Metting also plays Fred, Scrooge’s nephew. His transitions between Dickens and Fred show less change in character between the two but allow for more interaction with the cast and Metting plays both roles comfortably.
The role of Past, described as a childlike phantom, is double cast and played by Julie Hall this performance. Hall has an uncanny sense of fortitude and grace as the spirit for one so young. She delivers her dialogue with even tones and a semi-expressionless countenance which gives her character the authority she needs to escort Scrooge through his past. Her voice, with the addition of special effects, is haunting and she carries the weight of her role with ease.
Jay Lewis is this show’s jack-of-all-trades with his many roles. His main performance as Present made me feel as if he might break out into song due to the character’s jovial and larger-than-life demeanor. Lewis as the Undertaker gives such a contrasting performance from the pleasant spirit that you forget you’re seeing the same actor. His many roles are all notable.
The more haunting characters of A Christmas Carol come to life using the right amount of makeup, voice distortion, costuming and the right actor. While Michael Sorter may not have any dialogue as Future, his presence onstage is rightly menacing and eerie as it should be. As Jacob Marley, G. Aaron Siler relishes in the unnerving presence his character creates as he carries his burdens in chains. My one grievance is that Siler’s voice is too distorted when he raises his volume and some of the wording is lost, but still it’s a creepy effect.
I hold a special place in my heart for the Cratchits, so the anticipation of seeing the family onstage is a part of my excitement for this show. Bob Cratchit is suitably played by John Lewis in this production. Lewis conveys the right amount of timidity in his relationship with Scrooge and he renders an underlying joy that cannot be crushed even in the bleakest of moments. Emily Warwick is lovely as Mrs. Cratchit, a woman with a fiery tongue but a respectful wife and loving mother.
Lewis and Warwick give an emotional performance in Act II at the graveyard that brought tears to my eyes. The young actors playing the Cratchit children are energetic without being too precocious and help make a nice family unit. Tiny Tim, played by Mimi Barrus, is certainly a little darling onstage and her wide-eyed appearance garners some “awes” from the audience.
A couple of remaining stand out moments include Daron Cockerell as Poor Wife and JaceSon Barrus in their duet of “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly”. The song is also a mash-up with “Silent Night”, sung by the chorus, and the two carols together are performed beautifully all around. Also, the use of “Carol of the Bells” as a transition piece from the graveyard back to Scrooge’s bed chamber is dramatic and effective.
Walking into Plaza Theatre Company feels like coming home to friends and family that you've never met but feel a part of and welcomed. It is one thing to experience A Christmas Carol put on by a superb group of actors. It’s another to see and know how much they love it. The redemptive story of Ebenezer Scrooge is one every person should hear and I’m thankful for theaters like Plaza who carry on the tradition. Especially around the holidays, it’s important to be with family and friends and remember how fragile life is, how quickly it passes and that our past is our past, but we can keep the present and change our future.
“God bless us, every one!“
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