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.