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A SONG FOR SCROOGE: ‘A Christmas Carol the Musical’ modernizes a classic

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For a new take on a traditional tale, Thalian Association delivered with ‘A Christmas Carol the Musical.’

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The tale of the mean, old curmudgeon, Ebenezer Scrooge, and his Christmas Eve visit by four ghostly apparitions has become a quintessential holiday story—with its numerous adaptations across stage, screen and radio, along with its pedigree of authorship. Up there with Ralphie and his want for the Red Rider BB gun or John McClane saving the employees of the Nakatomi Corporation, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” always is in seasonal rotation.

Thalian Association continues to march on in the holiday spirit, bringing the Dickens’ classic to life in the form of a musical. Read Chase Harrison’s review of “A Christmas Carol,” including the 15th time Tony Rivenbark has taken on the miserly Scrooge. Photos courtesy of Thalian Association (above, George Domby)

Thalian Association continues to march on in the holiday spirit, bringing the Dickens’ classic to life in the form of a musical. Read Chase Harrison’s review of “A Christmas Carol,” including the 15th time Tony Rivenbark has taken on the miserly Scrooge. Photos courtesy of Thalian Association (above, George Domby)

On full display, Thalian Association has gift-wrapped an entertaining staging of the classic tale about the first holiday-hating scoundrel—only this time with the addition of music. From the rising of the curtain, audiences were transported to Victorian-era London. With a vast set design created by the production’s director, Lance Howell, it stretched all corners of Thalian’s main stage.

Perfectly housing the production’s egregiously sized cast, two brown wood-style houses held stage right and left with a well-crafted bridge that rested against the stage’s far back wall. It looked cool and built the proper but poor world of the times. And when scenes moved indoors, things became really neat.

Howell has built the two side houses to open up in a dollhouse-like fashion; scenes literally opened up or closed off to change the perspective from which they were being told. A lovely example came when Tiny Tim and Scrooge traded off a scene, made even grander from such epic design work. As well the desk of Scrooge and Marley’s business used in flashbacks was outstanding stage craft, used in some ingeniously well-done blocking. Turning around back and forth to signify the opening and closing of the business added a nice visual touch.

With a nearly 50-person cast, each and every one were costumed “to a T” by Deborah Hill Scheu. Her fascinating work matched the styles of the Victorian period and encapsulated the social standings of every character. Her designs for the production’s leads—Scrooge and visiting spirits—ranged between traditional to post-modernly odd, but outside of the Ghost of Christmas Future (which this adaptation does little with or for) it all came off successfully.

As noted, the production’s phenomenal lighting design can be attributed to Joshua Zieseniss. He did more than merely light the stage well; individual moments became wonderfully framed, live photographs. Jumping to mind is the spotlight that enveloped Scrooge, as he is bid farewell by Ghost of Christmas Past (Jim Bowling). It was breathtaking in its beauty. Hats off for the awesome work!

Tony Rivenbark, as the famed Scrooge, has had a nearly two decade history with “A Christmas Carol”; he has played the cranky humbug no less than a dozen or so times. Plus, he has directed the show twice. It’s clear the man has a solid view on what lifts the character off the page and makes the role timeless. Rivenbark did a great job showing the bitterness of the man whose shadow looms larger than his own unintimidating physique. Yet, the real pain he embodies at being forced to relive his past mistakes and seeing he is in fact to blame for them all became quite palpable. It was a solid performance by a seasoned veteran.

(Aside: When cloaked in Scheu’s costuming and with the snide, malevolent attitude given to Scrooge, I really want to see Rivenbark play another villain from literature, Oswald Cobblepot, a.k.a. the Penguin from “Batman” fame.)

The four seasonal spirits brought the foreboding message to Scrooge. George Domby walks the Earth in chains as the now-passed business partner of Scrooge, Jacob Marley. Covered in caked-on make-up to give a green, rotten corpse-like look, Domby owned his role. His rage at being considered more gravy than grave hit well. His number “Link by Link” was sung with precision and was the first song to really stand out in Act 1; although, the zombie/ghost dance number that accompanied it came off a bit out of place.

With the striking of 1 a.m., Scrooge was visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past. Bowling managed to run away with the production despite having a small amount of stage time. He brought sweet hope to the ghost that has the benefit of hindsight. His kind smile upon looking at the happier times in Scrooge’s life added warmth to the stage. Though, his quick turn-of-attitude toward Ebenezer seemed more akin to a frustrated father who had heard enough whining. His number “The Light of Long Ago” was top-notch as portrayed by a stunning voice that reverberated Thalian.

At the ringing of 2 a.m. came the Ghost of Christmas Present (Elisa Smith), and though during the show I attended she had a few shaky moments, all around she imbued a lust for life in the role. Her living-in-the-moment temperament fit everything the ghost represents.

Finally, at the sounding of 3 a.m. came the finalé—the prospect of death. Denyse McDonnell played the ghost of Christmas Future. Sadly, a lot of this portion of the production fell flat. The future, while always a silent partner to the rest of its haunting crew, carries all the weight of the story. A surprise twist shows Scrooge’s own apathy leads to the early death of Tiny Tim—meaning all are overjoyed when he finally kicks the bucket. In this version, though, due to odd staging, none of the moments landed. The costuming for the ghost was the only blemish to the department’s overall design, and looked more akin to a 1970’s lounge singer than a frightening figure.

As well, the assemble was overstuffed so it didn’t  stand out among the masses. Both Michael Lauricella and Kathy Enlow can’t be ignored, though, as Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig. They brought zest to the stage, and their shared number, “Mr. Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball,” was one of the funniest of the night. Also of note, Bay Allebach as Tiny Tim showered us with a lovely voice.

Crafted by Alan Menken, the music comes in quick succession, and not one song seemed all-too catchy. Already a quick-paced story, the show didn’t seem to drop into a proper speed to find its rhythm at first. The musical numbers at the top of the show merged into one another quickly and confusingly. None of the songs carried a similar tone, and each seemed as if it was better suited to other musicals. Until Marley’s arrival, everything sounded like one giant overture, actually. Mixed with numerous microphone issues, opening night featured a cast of muffled speech, with only half heard during certain numbers. Though it created an unbalanced sound, hopefully, all will be fixed for the rest of its run.

Still, the production managed to topple its obstacles with solid performances and a set which perfectly served the scope of the story. And the lighting design was mind-blowing! For a new take on a traditional tale, Thalian Association delivered.

A Christmas Carol the Musical
Through Dec. 16, Fri.-Sat., 7:30 p.m., and Sun., 3 p.m.
Thalian Hall • 310 Chestnut St.
Tickets: $16-$32.

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