A Christmas Carol

Fantasy Playhouse just closed their annual Christmas show, A Christmas Carol, which ran the past two weekends at the VBC Playhouse.  While missing the mark on a few things, both technical and artistic, it is still a very enjoyable, often impressive, evening of family entertainment.  This was a new adaptation of the Charles Dickens story, so even if you’ve seen the Fantasy production before, it was worth a visit again, because there were some new wrinkles.  Make no mistake, this was, overall, a “good show”.

The story, as we all well know, is about an old miser, Ebeneezer Scrooge, who is turned into a new man on the night of Christmas Eve, after being visited by a series of ghosts, who show him the error of his cold-hearted ways.  Most people are aware that Dickens wrote the story in 1843 with a primary goal of attacking society’s horrible treatment of the poor, and especially poor children.  The story is not religious, per se, but it does emphasize the importance of being loving and caring toward our fellow man.  What people may not realize, however, is that A Christmas Carol is credited with starting a revolution in Christmas traditions.  For centuries, it had been merely one more quiet religious holiday on the calendar (like, say, Ash Wednesday).  It was Dickens’ story which sparked a rather rapid change in how Christmas was observed in England, turning it into the major festival season of gift-giving, family get-togethers, holiday feasts, and extra donations to the poor, which we all know today.

This new stage adaptation, written by Elaine L. Hubbard, is pretty good, hitting the major plot points we all remember, and capturing the important Dickens message about caring for those less fortunate.  There are a few minor oddities, like Marley saying that Scrooge won’t see him again, but then appearing to him several more times; and Scrooge finishing the story with magic pixie dust in his hat, that are slightly eyebrow-raising, but not major problems.  The biggest issue with the script is a strange quartet of ghostly haunts, who nominally serve as a Greek chorus and narration device, but instead are merely distracting.  They are apparently characters from books that young Ebeneezer read as a child, but that just raises questions that are never answered, without adding anything to the story.  Double kudos to Hubbard, for not only writing the script, but also composing the original lyrics.  While the original score, written by Mary Ann Bishop, isn’t exactly impressive (no harmonies, for example), it’s still an accomplishment.  Overall, though, the meat of the Scrooge tale is there, with a clean message about caring and loving, and the base for a solid production for Fantasy to run for many years to come.

Elaine L. Hubbard also served as the director, and she does a nice job of moving things around the stage, and keeping the action going, but the character development is a bit lacking.  In theatre, we talk about a “character arc”–the internal journey that a character takes in front of the audience, as they change who they are.  That is one definition of a “lead actor”, after all–the person playing the part of a character who experiences literally life-changing events.  When looked at from a distance, the character at the beginning is vastly different from the character at the end, but they can not instantly jump from here to there.  If the lead character changes too quickly, they either weren’t very set in their old ways, and the show lacks any real drama; or they were set in their ways, and the transition is completely unbelievable.  Instead, it needs to be a slow “arc” of gentle changes, step by step, with each small change motivated by something happening in that specific moment, so that by the end of the show, the character has turned in a completely new direction.  That journey is what the show is about, and it’s what the audience came to see.  Unfortunately, in this production, it is missing.  This Scrooge starts out as a wonderful irascible villain–someone we love to hate–and he finishes as the giddy, caring benefactor the city’s poor need; exactly the starting and ending Scrooge should have.  However, he doesn’t travel an arc to get from A to B, but instead jumps right to the end, and we lose the real drama of his transformation.  By the end of Scrooge’s time with the Ghost of Christmas Past, he’s already a fun, caring guy, dancing along with the music, and worrying about the poor.  Frankly, the second and third ghosts are unnecessary–he’s already converted.  That said, Hubbard does well with the blocking and staging, creating nice stage pictures, and generally giving the whole audience good sight-lines to the action.

Jessica Alexander’s choreography was rather involved, without being impressive.  Granted, these characters are not trained dancers, but they still would have been a bit tighter on their dance steps, which were rather vague and wandering.  Still, the result made for some generally pleasing movements about the stage.  The program does not list a Vocal or Music Director, but the songs were nice.  The Haunts, unfortunately, were not very tight in their “Greek chorus” moments, when we really needed to comprehend the words they were singing.  They are giving narration and exposition, but with the four performers just slightly off from each other on cut-offs and pick-ups, these sections were a bit muddy, and hard to follow.  Without the haunts, it would be a stretch to call this is Musical, but the carols being sung throughout by the chorus, were generally quite well done.  The live mini-orchestra backstage, conducted by Sally Martin Priester, did a very nice job of accompanying the songs, and especially well with atmospheric music throughout.

The acting was generally quite well done.  Rankin Sneed, as “Scrooge”, was wonderful, even if he didn’t get the directing guidance he needed.  His portrayal of the miser at the top of the show was possibly the most “scroogey” Scrooge I’ve ever seen, and he absolutely lets himself go at the end when he’s turned into the nice guy.  Meredith Johnson does a very nice job, as both “Belle” and “Meg”, though it is odd for the same actress to be cast in both parts, because I’m sure there was more than one talented young actress who auditioned.  Helen Donahue and Jeff White, as the Ghosts of Christmas Past and Present, were both perfect for their roles.  Nola White, as “Tiny Tim”, gives a phenomenal start to the show, and has a lovely singing voice.  Overall this was a very large, very enjoyable ensemble, and they were clearly all having a good time.

Technically, the show was quite well done, for the most part.  The set, built up over the years by Fantasy Playhouse for this annual production, is likely the most impressive set one will ever see in a local community theatre production.  With three turntables, numerous flying pieces, and generous use of smoke machines, the atmosphere is well maintained throughout.  The costumes, managed by Gay Broad, were stellar, like we have come to expect from Fantasy Playhouse.  The sound effects, were very well done, but the microphone mixing needed some help.  In future productions, they should consider turning down the mics during stage conversations between people with and without mics.  When we can hear the un-amplified actors just fine, it just becomes a distraction to have half the conversation coming from the speakers, and half not.  Similarly, in group party scenes, when everyone onstage is doing a “hubbub”, the microphones really need to be turned down, because we hear a few people amplified, even though there is nothing actually important about what they are saying.  All that aside, the sound crew did manage to balance things well between the music, the FX, and the microphones, so that we didn’t have any lost lines of dialogue or song.  The lighting sometimes failed to focus the eye, and occasionally even had actors in the dark, but generally managed to illuminate the action, and often helped with the mood.

While there were some things that could have been better, there is absolutely no question that this was “good theatre”.  With some relatively easy fixes next year, this has the clear potential to be GREAT theatre.

For full disclosure, one of my sons played a small part in this production, my wife was in the orchestra, and another son worked crew.

A version of this review may appear on AL.com, though, if it does, I have little control over when.  Keep an eye on my profile page there.

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