Sunday, December 4, 2011

Humbuggery and Grace

Humbuggery and Grace
By Tom Wachunas

“Come in! Come in, and know me better, man!” -The Spirit of Christmas Present, from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (1843) –

This year marks the 30th anniversary production of “A Christmas Carol” by the Players Guild Theatre in Canton. Promoted as having enhanced special effects and music (this is the version with music by Steve Parsons and lyrics by John Popa, originated in 1997), I nonetheless considered bypassing the event.

I saw the show last year and raved about it. Lately, though, I’ve felt a dampening of the proverbial ‘Christmas spirit’, further jaded by the encroachment of newer national “traditions” such as Thanksgiving night camp-outs at retail stores in a growing readiness to greet the Spirit of Christmas Consuming. And the straw that broke the reindeer’s back, as it were, was the report of a bragging California woman who pepper-sprayed fellow customers in a mad fit of “competitive shopping.” Black Friday to be sure. Scrooges’ searing opinion of society’s dispossessed – “Are there no prisons?” - has yet a new application. Humbug to you all, I said. I fart in your general direction.

Fortunately I repented of such extreme cynicism – surely a Scrooge moment - and came to my senses long enough to revisit one of literature’s most treasured Christmas narratives, lovingly retold here by a 32-member cast under the joint direction of Joshua Erichsen and composer Steve Parsons (with assistance from Jeremy P. Lewis). The instrumental music alone, provided by an impeccably polished 11-piece orchestra, is robust and scintillating, able to lift even the Scroogiest heart. There’s a distinctly fresh luster, too, in the charming, energetic choreography by Michael Lawrence Akers.

Joshua Erichsen’s scenic design - with its thrilling fly effects, meticulously sculpted sets of 18th century architectural facades that swivel to reveal period interiors, and clever use of a trap door in the stage floor – brings remarkable dimensionality to the proceedings. But the real magic here is to be found in the songs, the singing, and the characters’ lively performances delivered by an inspired cast of truly professional quality.

Walter Shepherd is a warm and earnest Bob Cratchit, and his song, “A Child Alone,” with Zachary Charlick – delightfully authentic as Tiny Tim – is one of the evening’s most tender moments. Heartrending, too, is Amanda Medley in her role of Scrooge’s erstwhile love, Belle, who brings her sweetly riveting vocal finesse to the soaring ballad, “I Have to Know.” Also soaring, literally and otherwise, is Kelley Edington as the Ghost of Christmas Past as she flies and sings the ethereal “Wandering” with an incredulous-looking Scrooge in tow. And Justin Edenhofer is genuinely convivial as Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, while equally strong in his dual role of the young workaholic Ebenezer, particularly as he sings “Ten Minutes More.”

It’s pleasantly surprising to see a woman cast as the Ghost of Christmas Present. To that role, Eva Roberson brings a pure, passionate urgency tempered by child-like innocence. And speaking of children, young McKenzie Mack’s solo work in “Rogue’s Song (Shine a Light on Me)” is startlingly powerful.

The evening has several memorably funny and lighthearted scenes, among them the jaunty “Mister Scrooge” early in Act One, performed with quasi- vaudevillian glee by The Collecting Men trio of Austin Gantz, John Scavelli, and Andrew Knode. In Act Two they join forces with Tom Bryant (who also played Jacob Marley’s Ghost), Trisha Fites, and Linda Teis as a gang of scruffy grave robbers during the raucous and irreverent romp, “We Build Ourselves Up.”

A veteran of many Players Guild productions, the inimitable Don Jones reprises his role of Scrooge this year with a notably renovated authority. In fact, whereas last year some of his energy seemed at times under-developed (though not detrimentally so), this time around he invests his character with a substantially more vigorous animation and savory, credible pathos. When he’s mean, we shudder at his vitriol; when he’s remorseful, he breaks our hearts; when he’s redeemed, we’re giddy with elation right along with him. And did I mention his seasoned confidence? On opening night, the set was agonizingly slow and jerky as it rotated into Scrooge’s bedchamber encounter with Marley’s ghost. In a brilliantly hilarious ad lib, Jones, teetering slightly, handled the unscripted moment with endearing aplomb as he muttered, “Well, here’s an adventure…we must be having an earthquake.”

Adventure indeed, Jones’ performance, along with that of the entire cast, is an invigorating respite from the mundane, ever-growing absurdities and distractions that can suck the meaning – the joy and the hope - out of Christmas. Far from providing merely escapist entertainment, though, the Players Guild’s continuing faithful commitment to this classic story is a necessary and brave tradition of holding up a much-needed light, and an otherwise generous offering of artful grace in troubled times.

“A Christmas Carol – the new musical” at Players Guild Theatre, located in the Cultural Center for the Arts, 1001 Market Ave. North, in Canton. Shows through December 18 – Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $23 adults, $21 seniors 60+, $18 under 18, available through box office at (330) 453-7617, or at
Photo: illustration of Marley’s Ghost by John Leech from first edition of “A Christmas Carol” (1843)

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