By Tom Wachunas
“I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year. I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future. The Spirits of all three shall strive within me. I will not shut out the lessons that they teach.” - Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol (1843)
The last time I saw the Players Guild production of A Christmas Carol was in 2011. The ensuing years have not dulled this lustrous theatrical gem. In fact, director and choreographer Michael Lawrence Akers seems to have sweated the small stuff so that some facets of this year’s offering have acquired a sparkling new radiance.
Joshua Erichsen’s scenic design includes meticulously sculpted 19th century architectural facades that swivel to reveal period interiors. When paired with thrilling fly effects, the entire set takes on a dramatic dimensionality, further animated by the authentic period costumes by George McCarty II, based on original designs by Susie Smith and Patricia Hemphill. Then there’s the wowing light and sound design by Scott Sutton, including very effective reverb effects along with tight spotlighting that makes individual characters seem to magically glow when they sing. A particularly spectacular and startling effect is the projection of Jacob Marley’s ghostly face on to the door-knocker of Scrooge’s house. The vivacious 11-piece orchestra, led by composer and keyboardist Steve Parsons, provides a scintillating atmosphere for John Popa’s clever and often compelling lyrics. And finally, the astonishingly talented 35-member cast rounds out this list of ingredients which add up to nothing less than a benevolent conspiracy to enthrall.
The big ensemble choral numbers are impressively stirring with their sonorous harmonies. And when not front–and-center, the ensemble members are nonetheless adept at portraying authentic townsfolk sincerely engaged with each other through gestures, shared glances, and animated dialogue.
Matthew Horning brings real warmth and earnestness to his role of Bob Cratchit. His singing of “A Child Alone,” along with the equally earnest Adam Petrosino as Tiny Tim, is one of the evening’s most tender passages. Amanda Medley plays Belle, Scrooge’s erstwhile love. When she senses her hold on Scrooge slipping away, the heart-piercing sweetness of her voice, tinged with palpable hurt, is riveting as she sings “I Have To Know.”
In her airborne rendering of The Ghost of Christmas Past, Sarah Marie Young is mesmerizing as she sings “Walk With Me” to an incredulous-looking Scrooge in tow. There’s a soothing resonance to her soprano tonality that imbues her character with childlike innocence, subtly tempered with gentle wisdom and even a bit of irony.
The tonal muscularity in Bart Herman’s voice is well-suited to his roles of Mr. Fezziwig, Scrooge’s former boss, and the Ghost of Christmas Present. As Fezziwig, he’s the picture of magnanimous joviality. As the Ghost, he’s alternately ebullient and authoritative in a cautionary sort of way.
Other strong performances include Matthew Heppe in his dual role of Fred, Scrooge’s affable nephew, and Scrooge as a young workaholic, especially engaging when he sings “Ten Minutes More.” The evening is peppered with memorably funny scenes such as the jaunty “Mister Scrooge.” The song features The Collecting Men - a trio of charity solicitors played by Tyler Ferrebee, Doug Lisak, and Greg Rininger (who also turns in a chilling portrait of Jacob Marley’s ghost) - who cavort and cajole with quasi-vaudevillian glee, their harmonies reminiscent of old-timey radio jingles.
This performance marks the sixth appearance of Don Jones in the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. A seasoned veteran of the stage, it’s clear that he’s never stopped fine-tuning the nuances of his character to become more emotionally expansive. Here, he’s wholly in the moment(s) as he progressively sheds a convincingly irascible, selfish persona and steps into compassionate living. When he’s cruel, we shudder at his vitriol; when remorseful, he breaks our hearts; when redeemed, we’re giddy with elation right alongside. I think it fair to say that Jones (and for that matter the entire cast and production staff) owns Scrooge in the same way one would possess and care for a precious family heirloom.
Precious indeed, this production. The Players Guild’s continuing commitment to this iconic story is a necessary and brave tradition of holding up a much-needed light and generous measure of grace in an ever-darkening world. It’s surely an artful epiphany that blesses us, every one.
A Christmas Carol, The New Musical, with music by Steve Parsons, book and Lyrics by John Popa (originated in 1997), at Players Guild Theatre, 1001 Market Avenue N, Canton, Ohio, THROUGH DECEMBER 20, 2015 / Shows on Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m., Sunday at 2:00 p.m. / Single tickets:$26/ 17 and younger: $19/ Seniors: $23 / Box Office 330.453.7617 / www.playersguildtheatre.com
PHOTOS, from top, courtesy Players Guild Theatre: Don Jones as Ebenezer Scrooge / Sarah Marie Young as Ghost of Christmas Past / (left) Bart Herman, Ghost of Christmas Present; Don Jones as Scrooge