Theatrical Review – A Christmas Carol, the Musical
By Dick Franztreb
Opening night of A Christmas Carol, The Musical was on October 30, and I have to tell you, I wasn’t really in the mood for Christmas, any more than was Ebenezer Scrooge. But this show was so utterly charming, so beautifully presented, that I quickly bought everything it was selling. It whisked me away into an inspiring story that would have delighted me even if I had seen it in July.
The name of the show was projected on the curtain while we in the audience were taking our seats, and behind the words, animated snow was falling. After the lively overture, the curtain opened on a street in Dickensian London, and it was dazzling. The scene was full of life and constant motion that gave the impression of a bustling city.
Indeed, the sense of place was perfectly crafted in this production. Over the years, Zach Wilson’s projections on the back of the stage have gotten steadily more sophisticated with the addition of a bit of animation and very high-quality graphics. With this show there is the added effect of panning from one scene to the next, sort of like what you can do with Google’s “Street View” — panning left or right to see what is on the other side of the street. Add well-designed set pieces and wonderful period costumes, and the magic is complete: you are believably on a street in 19th-Century London, or in Scrooge’s bedroom, or at the Christmas celebration in Fezziwig’s Bank.
It was only minutes into the show when I wrote in my notes, “The acting is just stupendous.” I have yet to see the Mistletoe Cast in which Zach Wilson plays the key role of Ebenezer Scrooge. Zach is a wonderful actor, singer and dancer and plays Scrooge’s nephew in the Holly Cast. That is the cast I saw and in which Ryan van Overeem plays Scrooge. This 19-year-old, who looks and acts more like a 30-something, couldn’t have played the part more perfectly. He was completely despicable — even execrable — hunched over with a cane-assisted walk, a scrunched up face, a raspy voice and a tolerably good British accent. And through the course of the show, his transformation was gradual and complete, evidence of his skill as an actor.
Van Overeem is an excellent singer to complete the package, but there were so many good voices on display in this show. That said, I was especially impressed by the beautiful voice that Stephen Knoble brought to his character as Bob Cratchit. In fact I found myself marveling at the extraordinary parade of talented kids. In one scene, there was one after another delivering a few lines of a song, each with an excellent voice.
Throughout the evening, I found the dialog and action fast-paced. There’s no opportunity in this production for your mind to wander or for your attention to relax: there is too much going on and it’s all happening so quickly. Most significantly, though, everything in this show is done with a sense of style and an attention to detail. At one point 6 people are carrying a coffin across the stage but it’s not simple walking, even in lockstep. No, their forward progress includes a little choreographed hesitation and step back. I got the feeling that nothing in this show was done without thought about how it could be performed in a more interesting way.
That was evident when Drew Matthews as Jacob Marley’s ghost emerged from the fireplace in Scrooge’s bedroom to the accompaniment of theatrical fog. His make-up, costume and moaning were so scary that I would have expected little children in the audience to cover their eyes. He was the first actor to “fly,” and when he rose above the stage, I think a lot of adults in the audience might have felt a chill. Marley’s big number was “Link by Link” in which he was accompanied by about 20 “ghosts” who looked and acted more like zombies. I saw the show on October 30, and the choreography in this scene was just brilliant, the best homage to Halloween I could imagine. I couldn’t stop thinking about how much fun those kids were having performing this outrageous choreography.
As the story progressed there was a lot more flying by Scrooge and the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, and it was all to good effect. I was especially impressed when a surprised-looking Scrooge holds the hand of the Ghost of Christmas Past suspended 15 feet above the stage while the moving projection of clouds behind them gives the sense of truly flying through the air. By this time, I was thinking, “There’s absolutely nothing amateurish about this production.” And what’s the opposite of “amateurish”? Professional. And what makes it professional? Sure there is the native talent and hard work of all these young people (and the contributions of backstage and offsite armies of parents and other volunteers). But they are raised to professional standards by the key professionals in this organization: Director/Choreographer Debbie Wilson, Vocal Director Jennifer Wittmayer, and Costumer Christine Martorana.
There is wonderful, memorable music in this show, too. I think you’ll remember — or want to remember — songs like “A Place Called Home” or “Christmas Together” and especially “God Bless Us Everyone.” I left the theater humming the latter song and had a tough time getting it out of my head.
“Fezziwig’s Annual Christmas Ball” is more than just a musical number: it’s a spectacle. But then just about every scene in this show is a spectacle. And part of what made Fezziwig’s Ball so endearing was the way the choreography highlighted the dancing of the littlest performers or the way, with the whole cast facing the back of the stage, attention was focused on the young Scrooge and his fiancée, Emily. Every scene in this show is a masterpiece, an artistic construction of set, lighting, blocking, projection, and costumes.
Leaf through the program, and you’ll be surprised at the ages of the performers. The leads tend to be late teens, but there are many in the cast who are very young — and a couple are just 6 years old. And it’s interesting to see how the youngest are integrated into the show. For example, the first number after intermission, “Abundance and Charity” begins with about 20 little kids dancing and wearing boxes. Then older kids come out performing as wooden soldiers. Then 25 tap-dancing Santa’s helpers are added to the on-stage cast. Another spectacle.
Earlier I mentioned the stylized carrying of a coffin. One more of the many subtle yet impressive touches in the staging of this show took place while Scrooge and Emily are singing in the spotlight. Off to the side, out of the spotlight, the Spirit of Christmas Past is standing, but not just standing. While the other two characters are singing, she (Madison Sykes), with her arms at her side, raises them up and down ever so subtlely during the course of the song. Why? Because she’s still there performing on stage. I get the feeling that there is nothing static about EDMT performers when they are on stage, and it makes for such a richer experience for the audience.
Fundamentally, A Christmas Carol, The Musical is a touching story of redemption, caring for others, and learning what’s important in life. There are many moments of overflowing emotion, and if you get through the show without having to wipe away a tear, then you are truly made of steel. I know that early November feels early for a Christmas show. But however you plan to celebrate Christmas — whatever entertainment you plan to take in — start with this. I’m betting it will be the best, the most entertaining, the most inspiring, and the most productive of true Christmas spirit of all the other performances you may witness.