When I walked into the Byham Theater to see Pittsburgh CLO’s A Musical Christmas Carol for the very first time, I let out an involuntary “Wow!”. The impact of D Martyn Bookwalter’s set is nothing short of breathtaking. Antique artifacts and various ornate furnishings cover the stage painting an incredibly authentic portrait of Dickensian London with equal shades of squalor and grandeur. It’s like stepping into a music box. But this music box is a well-oiled machine that has been entertaining generations of families in Pittsburgh for 26 years. Like the four seasons, A Musical Christmas Carol comes around every year and ushers in a change in climate. While this production’s magical powers don’t extend to banishing the below freezing temperatures outside, it will surely fill all who see it with enough warmth and light to carry them through the many cold winter nights to come. Charles Dickens’s 1843 novella has been adapted so many times in so many different media that the list of adaptations has its own Wikipedia page. But don’t expect to see any Muppets or Bill Murray onstage at the Byham because Pittsburgh CLO serves up the classic story straight with genuine English accents and absolutely gorgeous period costumes by Mariann Verheyen. Original director and choreographer David H. Bell also adapts Dickens’s work here and effectively uses the myriad of tools and tricks that the theatre provides to maintain the heart and horror of the original story and to establish the town and all of its inhabitants as fleshed out characters. He incorporates a handful of (frustratingly) truncated Christmas standards that existed when the story takes place like “Silent Night”, “Good King Weneslas”, and “Deck the Halls” that function more to transition between scenes and underscore the action than to propel it forward. Fortunately, the only thing you truly need to get you from one moment to the next in A Musical Christmas Carol is anticipation for each of its source material’s famous moments and lines. It’s of course the story of the miserable miser Ebenezer Scrooge who meets every tiding of comfort and joy extended to him with a venomous “Humbug!”. On Christmas Eve, he berates and belittles his nephew Fred, his employee Bob Cratchit, and innocent citizens soliciting donations for the less fortunate before being visited by the ghost of his late business partner Jacob Marley. This specter warns Scrooge that he will soon meet three more ghosts who will show him the error of his greedy, malevolent ways. The Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come journey through time with Scrooge present him with shadows of his past and present follies and how they put his future in mortal danger. Although in the short run it might seem that Scrooge uses money to right the wrongs he’s perpetrated, it’s clear that his heart really did grow three sizes after his time with the ghosts when he embraces and is in turn embraced by his fellow man. And then there’s Bob Cratchit’s adorable, handicapable son Tiny Tim (even more adorably portrayed by Daniel Frontz) who ties the universal themes of the story together with four immortal words: “God bless us, everyone”. Another wonderful thing about the time-honored tradition of A Musical Christmas Carol is the way it brings actors of all ages and experience levels together in service of spreading holiday cheer to the masses. Alongside newcomer Frontz, you’ll see Broadway veteran Patrick Page in the iconic role of Ebenezer Scrooge. [caption id="attachment_6079" align="aligncenter" width="4155"] Patrick Page and Daniel Krell[/caption] Page is no stranger to being the villain (see his dark turns in Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark and The Hunchback of Notre Dame), the Christmas villain (he played the titular role in the musical adaptation of How the Grinch Stole Christmas), or even Scrooge (this is his second year with AMCC), but he does not rest on his laurels here. His Scrooge’s pain comes from within whether he’s bearing witness to his cruelty through the memories or presently committing acts of avarice. Page does not get to sing much unfortunately, but he performs each of his monologues with a Shakespearean edge that elicits uproarious applause. In this performance, he effortlessly exudes gravitas and proves that reacting on stage can be just as compelling as acting. Surrounding and supporting Page is a large ensemble with seriously big talents. Just about all of them play upwards of 2-4 roles including everything from simple carolers to frightening phantoms. When they start singing, you’ll be calling them the angels we have heard on high. Among them, Lisa Ann Goldsmith (Mrs. Cratchitt), Erika Strasburg (Young Scrooge’s first love, Belle), and Luke Halferty (Young Scrooge himself) stand out most, but it’s clear that no one is having as much fun as Tim Hartman (Mr. Fezziwig and Ghost of Christmas Present). Hartman is a 25-year veteran of AMCC whose booming voice, towering height, and great comedic timing make it impossible to take your eyes off of him. After 26 years, this old chestnut is still roasting and nipping at the hearts of mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons in Pittsburgh and showing no signs of stopping. Pittsburgh CLO and Bell have created a dazzling and sentimental tribute to the true reason for the season. A Musical Christmas Carol might only play in this city, but I know that, as it touches the people who see it and they go out and live their lives, that this production truly brings joy to the world. A Musical Christmas Carol plays at the Byham Theatre through December 23rd. For more information, click here. Photos by Matt Polk.
Everything about The Steel City Shakespeare Center's (SCSC) production of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol surprised me. This was my first SCSC performance and I have to admit, I kind of want to go back today and watch the show again. For weeks I had been imagining what a show performed at the Troy Hill, V.F.W. would look like. I also wondered how a production company can carry out a play, with an extensive list of parts, using the concept of extreme casting. I was dreaming up all sorts of ideas, only to have each and every one proved wrong by the charm and cleverness of this production. Walking into the performance space was somewhat startling. The room was severely lacking in holiday decor. I expected, at the very least, mock-Victorian wreaths or garland. The walls were bare; not even red and green colored construction paper chains or Christmas lights taped to the wall. I looked around the room again. There is no scenery displayed; no painted plywood or drop cloths hanging from the ceiling, to assist the audience with their transport into 19th century London. The space is basically unaltered. Standard hall chairs, metal with vinyl seats, are lined neatly in rows. By four o’clock a handful of families began to trickle in. These young children carried ziplock baggies of candy and filled the rows beside me. I took note; there are no screens for quick costume changes, no visible props and a roomful of young children eating candy. I began to think this could end very bad. In the time before the show began, I had the pleasure of chatting with Michael Mykita, actor and Director of Audience Development. Michael shared a bit SCSC’s A Christmas Carol history, now in its’ third season. A Christmas Carol was initially a struggle to adapt from novella to stage-worthy interpretation. Mykita and Artistic Director, Jeffrey Chips, spent a great deal of time working the story into a format ready for performing. This season, director Jessica Schiermeister, desired to keep as much of the original story text as possible, so Mykita revealed, ‘the actors will narrate Dickens, then simply step into character as needed’. Interesting concept, but I wondered, how was this really going to play out. I hate to admit, I was skeptical. With a cast comprised of 5 actors depicting all of the characters, there is no scenery, no costume changes, no stage, lighting, intermission or big musical numbers; this could not have been an easy task to execute. Michael Mykita, cast as Scrooge, Sebastian Midence plays the roles of Bob Cratchit, the Ghost of Jacob Marley, Young Scrooge, Ignorance & Man with Bundle, David Loehr, cast as Fred, Fezziwig, the Ghost of Christmas Present, Peter Cratchit and Old Joe. Susana Garcia Barragan playing the parts of Charity Lady, Little Boy Singing, Tiny Tim, Fred’s Wife, the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Last, Sandee Rollins, appearing as Charity Lady, the Ghost of Christmas Past, Mrs. Cratchit, Belle, Want, Laundress, and Christmas Morning Child. What SCSC provides cannot be compared to any other production of A Christmas Carol. Through the most simple arrangements, SCSC has created an intimate experience of refined storytelling. Throughout the performance, I watched intently as the actors interacted, almost singularly using tone of voice and facial expressions to distinguish their characters. This enchanting rendition is not the awkward challenge I expected but a moment of magic. As the cast narrates Dickens, and continually reconstruct their enactments stepping in and out of multiple roles, I expected to be bored. I also figured the children in the audience, some appearing to be as young as 3 or 4 years old, would fidget or be noisy, but this was far from what materialized. The cast was engaging, energetic and completely enveloped in character. I was engrossed in the time and place of the story. Watching Mykita as Scrooge transform from bitter miser into a compassionate and gentle fellow is endearing. Midence, as the ghost of Jacob Marley is a part I may forever associate with the role. Loehr, as the Ghost of Christmas Present is captivating but it is his representation of Scrooge’s nephew, Fred, which is most notable. Barragan, as the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, shrouds herself in a long black cape, (one of the few props used in telling the tale) keeping her face hidden by a hood. This menacing portrayal is striking in comparison to the times when she leads the audience in unembellished yet sweet and brief sing-a-longs. Her depiction of Tiny Tim, with a wooden crutch propped under her arm, is an impressive gage to the scope of her ability. Rollins’s delivery of narration is most mesmeric. As the Ghost of Christmas Past, she maneuvers across the floor with a brilliant model of an astral figure by her side, flowing white and truly dreamlike, another of the few props used, easily evoking fear and grief from Scrooge. I have never seen a performance like SCSC’s A Christmas Carol before. When the show ended I walked outside and was utterly surprised by the arrival of evening. I had simply been swept up into the story and lost all track of time. I can speak highly of this show, but want to confirm the talent of this cast and crew will attract audience members of all ages. The children in the audience Saturday sat transfixed, not making a peep. I felt comforted by the voices of the cast and feel I heard not just the words of Dicken’s but the message of A Christmas Carol for the first time. This act certainly brought a calm to the chaos that often accompanies me during this time of year. A Christmas Carol runs December 15, 16, and 17th at various locations. For more information click here.
Carnegie Stage has a hit in the making on its hands with the Christmas musical The Carols which had its Western Pennsylvania premiere on Thursday in Carnegie. The show was commissioned by Philadelphia’s 1812 theatre company and first premiered there in December of 2016. The book and lyrics were written by 1812’s Artistic director Jennifer Childs with music composed by Pittsburgh’s Monica Stephenson. The Carols is set in the small town of Picatinny, NJ shortly after the United States officially entered World War II. It's Christmastime and the town longs for their loved ones to return from battle. The VFW Post is empty, manned only by the three Carol sisters, Lily, Rose, and Sylvia, who work with Miss Betty (Jill Keating), a grumpy middle-aged woman who appears to be the wartime keeper of the Post along Teddy (Nick Stamatakis), the resident silent pianist. Rose (Mandie Russak) is the boy crazy “dumb blonde” with a problem pronouncing words with silent letters, so "ghosts" to her are "gee-hosts." Sylvia (Kate Queen-Toole) is the ambitious career girl who absolutely and gushingly adores Eleanor Roosevelt. Lily (Moira Quigley), the youngest, is the girl next door, the least hip of the trio, but she loves to use modern slang. She manages the story flow and serves as narrator. The girls feel it is their patriotic duty to stage the annual production of A Christmas Carol even if it means doing so without male actors. Betty, who mysteriously wants no part of this Christmas Carol effort argues to “just cancel the darn thing.” After much debate, the girls conclude that the show must go on. Audition posters go up which catch the eye of Mel (Leon S. Zionts), a too-old for combat and out-of-work Borscht Belt stand-up comic who is looking for a gig on the way his to Florida for the winter. Without Betty’s help, the girls, Mel and Teddy, begin to craft their own version of Dickens' classic tale as they bring their hopes for the future to the deconstructed classic. Mel recognizes Betty as a famous burlesque and vaudeville performer. He was a patron of those arts as a young man when he was honing his comedic skills. To a young Mel’s eyes, Betty Bell was unforgettable. Betty has a revelation and comes around to join the show. Rose sends a perfumed note to the local military base inviting any boys who might be in town to come to the play. Sylvia asks her hero Eleanor Roosevelt to attend, and Lily holds it together in spite of her concerns for the future. The show goes on, much to the delight of the audience. If this sounds typical of the contrived plot of many Christmas shows, well, you are correct. The play may be the thing, but in the case of The Carols, it’s really about the skill of the director and the singing, dancing and acting talents of the ensemble cast that make it a fun-filled laugh-out-loud show to watch and enjoy. Director Robyne Parish recently directed the well-received production of Violet for Front Porch Theatricals this past summer. In The Carols, she has drawn upon some of our regions most talented actors. Jill Keating has extensive acting experience and is a thirty-three-year member of Equity. Her portrayal of Betty is at first unsympathetic. In the number where she warms to the idea of playing Scrooge, she presents a fantastic transformation in demeanor both physically and vocally as Betty comes to appreciate her Burlesque past. Some period accurate costumes for her might be helpful, but her performance is stellar which, makes the costume oddity superfluous. The three sisters’ characters as written are as thick as greasepaint. Parish has humanized them, reminding us that we all know and love someone who is just like them. All three young women are rising stars to watch in the Pittsburgh theatre scene. In the intimate setting of Carnegie Stage, Russak’s Rose is a joy to watch. Her smile lights up the sage at the most opportune moments. Her facial expressions, delivery, and physical comedy skills are top-notch. Quigley’s Lily is most real of the characters as she wonders what will happen to her as she gets left behind in Picatinny when Rose and Sylvia leave to pursue their dreams. Lily and Mel have a fun tap dance number as they cement their friendship and kindred spirit. Zionts as Mel is perfect, just the right mix of an opportunist Catskill comic, adoring fan, and all around funny guy and tap dancer. His butchered rendition of Dickens's story is hilarious. Zionts and Keating have great chemistry as two old performers, a little past their prime. Their energy is magical to watch. The brilliance of Parish’s casting shines in the vocal talents of the actors. With Nick Stamatakis in addition to playing Teddy serving admirably as musical director, the trio of Rose, Sylvia, and Lily is pitch perfect. Their harmonies in the acapella songs are stunningly and surprisingly beautiful. Jill Keating’s choreography is superbly subtle, not over the top Mamma Mia style, but the perfect finishing touch for this trio of talented voices. Any shortcomings in the plot are more than made up by this talented ensemble of actors under Parish’s and Stamatakis’ direction. For a laugh-out-loud evening of theatre that will leave you smiling and marveling at the talent in Pittsburgh, The Carols is a must-see show. Carnegie Stage - start a tradition, save the set and book all these actors for next Christmas season, you have a hit on your hands. Pittsburgh Producers – find another show for these three talented young actresses can work together. The Carols at Carnegie Stage has performances on December 8th, 9th, 14th, 15th, 16th at 8 pm, December 9th, 10th, 16th and 17th at 3 pm. For tickets click here. Thanks to the Carnegie Stage for the complimentary tickets.