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.
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.