Tuesday, December 8, 2009

A Pax On All Our Houses

A Pax On All Our Houses

By Tom Wachunas

My paraphrasing of Shakespeare replaces “pox” – a disease or plague – with the Latin “pax” – peace. ‘Tis the season when all sorts of other phrases abound in our vocabulary, like “Merry Christmas,” “keep Christ in Christmas,” and “Jesus is the reason for the Season.” And as I – like countless millions the world over – become enthralled (or entrapped) by the glitz and glitter of this annual ritual celebration, I’m also reminded of a Warholism – “I’m afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning.”

There is an unmistakable, palpable importunity about this year’s Players Guild Theatre musical production of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” It’s not that director Jon Tisevich ever doubted the story’s popular appeal. It is, after all, a classic in every sense of the word, and as such it is etched as an unquestioned, even timeless tradition into our cultural embrace of Christmas. Rather, I think, its sense of immediacy rises from the challenge to dust off the story’s seasonal trappings and keep the narrative relevant to today’s audiences. In short, to present meaning that transcends merely great entertainment -which this cast delivers abundantly- and become revelatory, applicable truth in our lives RIGHT NOW.

Much of the emotional power of the story is gloriously enhanced by the score composed by Steve Parsons (who here directs a superb live orchestral ensemble), with lyrics by John Popa. In both melodic and lyrical presence, the music has all the memorable variety and impact of the finest Broadway musical literature. The vocal ensemble work of the cast is performed with impeccable enunciation along with genuine, contagious warmth.

Don Hillenbrand’s Scrooge is a remarkably impassioned and credible portrait that perfectly captures the character’s repressed pain masked as a monumentally acerbic world-view. Even in the scenes when he looks upon the proceedings from a distance, his face is captivating in its various expressions of authentic soul-searching.

Those scenes are all the more powerful due to the riveting performances by Kelley Edington (aided by the wonderful flying effects) as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Christopher Gales as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Edington is utterly mesmerizing as she sings the ethereal “Wandering,” and Gales equally so in his alternately muscular and tender, jovial admonishings of the flummoxed Scrooge, who is slow in figuring out the joy that propels his nephew, Fred. In that role, John Scavelli is a delightful picture of irrepressible optimism and willingness to love his uncle.

It is, though, the pivotal scenes of searing pathos that ultimately drive home the story’s urgent message of forgiveness and redemption. Among those, Amanda Medley is compelling and sonorous as she sings the doleful “I Have to Know.” And nowhere are Mark McCarthy as Bob Cratchit, and young Drake Spina as his son, Tim, more heartrending and utterly real than in their singing of “A Child Alone.”

Interestingly enough I kept thinking about Scrooge in Biblical terms. Cocky and self-absorbed, he had become comfortable, justified, and otherwise complacent in feeling that his moral obligations to the less fortunate were sufficiently met by his taxes paid to the government. He had become the equivalent of the Pharisees, whose heartless legalism Jesus found abhorrent.

In his 1843 introduction to the story, Dickens wrote to his readers that he hoped his “Ghostly little book” would “haunt their houses pleasantly…” I wonder if he had any idea of the sheer staying-power of his tale across centuries. And after seeing this masterfully mounted production, I was left with another more serious question: How willing am I to become an embodiment of real hope and relief - here, now, and forever beyond this season - for someone who needs it? I don’t think Dickens would mind if I offer this alteration to his introduction: May it haunt our lives pleasantly…

God bless us, everyone indeed.

Photo (left-to-right): Don Hillenbrand as Ebenezer Scrooge, Drake Spina as Tiny Tim Cratchit, Mark McCarthy as Bob Cratchit in the Players Guild Theatre production of “A Christmas Carol” at the Cultural Center for the Arts, through December 20. Tickets: (330) 453 – 7617 or www.playersguildtheatre.com

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