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THE BACKSTORY TO DICKENS’ CLASSIC: Big Dawg reprises Christmas tradition of ‘Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol’

“Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol” by Tom Mula at Cape Fear Playhouse already is selling out—and with good reason.

Big Dawg Productions offers a revival of their successful holiday show, “Jacob Marely’s Christmas Carol” by Tom Mula at Cape Fear Playhouse. The show already is selling out—and with good reason. Mula mines Charles Dickens’ Christmas classic for a backstory that startles and surprises. The piece utilizes the tropes of story theatre, so the performers narrate what they are acting. For example, when Scrooge walks through his house, holding a candle, Steve Vernon, who plays Scrooge, holds the candle and peers through his dark house while narrating events.

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Jacob Marley (Randy Davis) is dead. In a rather “Beetlejuice”-like afterlife setting, he encounters the Record Keeper (Fracaswell Hyman), who informs him his one chance of getting out of hell is to save his old partner, Ebenezer Scrooge, from the same path that Marley trod in life. His facilitator for this nearly impossible task is Bogle (Vanessa Welch).  A spirit with a little less Jiminy Cricket and a little more Black Adder, she is tasked with getting Marley through all this. But she can’t do it for him; “the inspiration and perspiration” must come from him. So she helps him along as much as she can to provide encouragement (my favorite of all her endearments for him was “old pimple,” which she almost managed to say with a straight face).  And they set off to get Scrooge’s attention.

The journeys as the Ghost of Christmas Past and Christmas Present are more transformative for Marley than Scrooge. (But the loop de loops and barrel rolls that Marley and Scrooge do when flying through the air are pretty wonderful!)  Fracaswell Hyman plays most of the supporting cast with distinct, believable and relatable characters, like in Fezziwig, Dick Wilkins and Bob Cratchit.

I never get tired of seeing Hyman on stage. And to catch him in a show like this, where he gets to stretch his wings and explore across the continuum of human experience, is a real treat. His Record Keeper is my favorite of the roles because he gets to combine humor with intelligence.

Vernon’s Scrooge is hard-nosed and bombastic when he wants to be. He actually cows and intimidates the ghost of Marely (and everyone else). It is clear he had the upper hand in their earthly relationship and still does in the afterworld. No wonder Marley is prepared to give up and go to hell rather than try to save Scrooge from himself. There is no part of Scrooge that even hints at any potential for redemption. That is what makes the journey and transformation all the more believable and fascinating. Really, I cringed when Scrooge came on stage. He made me shrink back in my chair. Vicious. He was seriously scary and vicious.

Though a lot of attention is placed upon Davis’ Marley and his performance (and deservedly so), what makes his journey possible is that Bogle is not going to give up on him.  Even when Marley is ready to throw in the towel, Welch’s Bogle is still there to radiate calm and hope. This is a first. He is rude, dismissive and even nasty, but still Bogle is there offering possibilities. Not pushing. Not whining. But being dependable. And Bogle doesn’t want something in return—only for Marley to make an effort and try. It is enough to make a grown man cry.

Indeed, what Marley experiences before the audience’s eyes defines “transformation.” Anyone without tears in her eyes by the end of the show, quite simply, must lack basic human feeling. Davis turns in a performance that will absolutely convince he is involved in a trip through purgatory. At moments I rootied for him, others left me totally prepared to watch him give up because watching him live through it all might be too much for anyone’s tender soul. It is the performance of a lifetime—and it happens because the entire cast makes all of it believable.

Stephanie Scheu Aman and Deborah Hill Scheu have hit a lovely balance in costuming the show:

Memorable pieces set the mood but are understated enough they don’t overwhelm the actors or the intimidate space. Though, Steve Vernon’s nightgown as Scrooge is pretty memorable.

The show is a revival of the production from a few years ago and has the same cast, same venue. It gives the audience a chance to deepen their connection with the magnificent work on stage. Part of what makes it interesting to see again is the first time watching it, the script and the performances overwhelm because of the magnitude of the message. Really. Seeing it again gives a chance to notice and appreciate details and subtlety. Each cast member brings so much to the stage, it is almost necessary to see it twice to appreciate the full scope of their work.

It is really hard for me to sit through “A Christmas Carol” again at this point in my life. However, Jacob Marley’s journey gives me hope for myself and my own redemption, as well the rest of the world. If the cast can convince us Marley could achieve it, then there might really be hope for the rest of us after all.

Big Dawg likely will sell out the entire run, so secure seats now. Also, consider sharing the gift of art this season and bring a friend and loved one. Folks will laugh, cry, and their souls will be filled.

DETAILS:
Jacob Marley’s Christmas Carol
Dec. 6-9 and 13-16, 8 p.m.; Sunday matinees, 3 p.m.
Cape Fear Playhouse
613 Castle St.
Tickets: $18-$25
bigdawgproductions.org

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