Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Milwaukee Rep presents "A Christmas Carol"

An invitation to honor Christmas in your heart

I've seen so many movie versions of A Christmas Carol, the lines run verbatim through my head this time of year. Christmas a humbug uncle? You don't mean that! There's more of gravy than of grave about you! And so as Tiny Tim observed, "God bless us everyone!"  It's turned me into a rather harsh critic of all new iterations of this wintry ghost story about three spirits thawing an old miser's heart. How can you top the choreography and art direction in the musical Scrooge, or Kermit as Bob Cratchit in The Muppet Christmas Carol

Well the Milwaukee Rep's brand new, 40+ anniversary production of A Christmas Carol puts its own mark on the Dickens classic. For starters, Rep Artistic Director Mark Clements embraced the ghostly elements of the story for a solid dose of spook factor. Then there's the staging, eliciting audible gasps and "wow"s from the audience. Even after leaving the theater, that's all anyone could talk about. The ambitious set (three years in the making!) features over 300 lights, 60 windows set aglow, and a massive turntable that rotates to reveal a new London scene at every spin. 

I have to say that, towering set design aside, my favorite creative choice by Clements is his dedication to making this a show for kids and families. Clements has said in interviews that he recognizes A Christmas Carol to be one of the first theatrical experiences that many children will have — and how right he is! The Christmas season is a time for getting dressed up in little suits and ties, patent leather shoes and velvet headbands. A time for special outings that offer an escape to another, more magical world. 

With the little ones in mind, Clements commits to giving them an unforgettable experience. The show is done in British Panto style, meaning there's lots of audience interaction. Scrooge asks us questions and we're meant to respond with a hearty "yes!" or "no!" or "look behind you!" I say "we" because of course the adults are expected to participate, too. 

Which leads me to a key point: To enjoy this Christmas Carol as a grown-up, you've got to suspend your disbelief and check any Scrooge-y tendencies at the door. Jump wholeheartedly into the game at play — no eye rolls, no heavy sighs. Do it for the kids. Because I promise you, even when you want to just sit quietly and let someone else shout "yes!" for once, the kids are loving every minute of it. 

So what else is new about this Rep production? The costumes are a mix of old and new. The Ghost of Christmas Past wins this round with her twinkling LED ensemble, and Deb Staples rocks the role with a commanding, Galadriel-esque presence. The Ghost of Christmas Present is in fact Jamaican, mon. I found his accent a little hard to understand at times, though his sunshiny vibe is unmistakeable. There's also new music by award-winning composer John Tanner, including a little solo song for Tiny Tim. 

And there's a new Scrooge in town: Jonathan Wainwright, who I think played the part marvelously. I imagine there's a lot of pressure in having to live up to such an iconic figure. Though funny and spirited at times, Wainwright's Scrooge moved me most in his quiet moments of observation — as he tenderly watches Tiny Tim sing his wishing song, and as he achingly longs for the love and joy of family while dropping in on his nephew Fred. 

Speaking of Fred, Michael Doherty practically stole the show for me. He plays Fred with such vigorous joy, it's easy to fall a little bit in love with him and his delightful exuberance for Christmastime. Other standouts for me include Christie Coran as Ellen (the character's heartfelt acceptance of Uncle Scrooge gets me every time, and Coran's portrayal was wonderfully warm), Jonathan Daly as Mr. Fezziwig (as jolly a Fezziwig as ever there was!), and Angela Iannone as Mrs. Fezziwig. Inannone and Doherty also open the show as a narrating pair of barkers, schooling the audience in how Panto-style theater works — interactions and all. 

At the very end of A Christmas Carol, the moral of the story is put into action with a call for donations to the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Milwaukee. The actors shout that they'll be in the lobby, bearing empty top hats and bonnets for filling for donations. The sentiment behind such a call is certainly on point, but the interjection was a bit startling. I wasn't ready to be jolted back to reality just yet. Does this happen at every performance? Has it been happening for 40+ years? Maybe I just need to get with it!

Regardless, the final moments of the Milwaukee Rep's A Christmas Carol went out with snow. Snow inside the already-dazzling Pabst Theater. Snow drifting down over the front orchestra section, as children leapt from their seats, chasing the flakes in the aisles, trying to catch just one. Mark Clements' vision of a kid-friendly, interactive, moving, eye-popping, and magical Christmas Carol was certainly worth the three years in the making. 

Cheers to the Milwaukee Rep and another 40+ years of A Christmas Carol. This is one theater company that knows how to keep Christmas well — may that truly be said of us and all of us.

A Christmas Carol is playing at the Milwaukee Rep now through December 24th. Information and tickets at milwaukeerep.com

No comments:

Post a Comment