BWW Reviews: A CHRISTMAS CAROL Marks 36th Consecutive Year at Theatre Memphis
Charles Dickens' sentimental story about a miser's reform feels particularly bittersweet this year because 85-year-old stage veteran Barry Fuller--who portrayed Ebenezer Scrooge when the show debuted at the old Theatre Memphis in 1978--has announced that this will be his final season in the role. (Rest assured, by all accounts, he's full of energy and plans to stay active in local theatre.)
His farewell performance, under the Direction of Jason M. Spitzer is an elaborate production. Scrooge's time-travelling bed (brought to life by John F. Scott, Jr.) hijacks the old pennypincher for a whirlwind trip toward enlightenment and we're swept along for a wild ride!
Ghosts float in the air and melt into the floor, snow falls, fog rises, Christmas pudding steams in its pan, actors appear in multple roles . . . you get the idea . . . . All with amazing precision thanks to Scenic Design by Christopher McCollum, Lighting by Jeremy Allen Fisher, Sound Design by David Newsome and Michael Compton, Stage Management by Melissa Hanson and Costumes by Paul McCrae.
Those technical effects are fascinating, but what warms our hearts is the large, diverse cast--a combination of seasoned actors and enthusiastic community members (including children in their debut performances)--giving their all to the production.
This Victorian era play (first published as a novella in 1843 and adapted for the stage the following year) might seem easy to act on the surface, but it isn't. Old-style writing requires a more presentational approach than contempoary works. Played wrong, it can sound stilted. Add to that the challenge of portraying straightforward, archetypal characters in fresh, new ways. By and large, this cast was up to the task, and then some.
Barry Fuller is a fine actor. He plays Scrooge with a lighter hand than most and I believed him, through and through. His more subtle choices make the classic curmudgeon more pitiable than contemptable, which really works. Instead of standing one step removed in judgement, we can't help but be reminded of our own character deficits as well. Fuller's well-chosen comedic moments give this not-so-likeable character a great deal of charm. His nuanced interpretation keeps us engaged and invested in every step of the story, even though we know how it will end.
I also particularly enjoyed Wesley Barnes' overall presence, classic theatrical finesse and beautiul acapella singing as the Ghost of Christmas Present. Other standout performances include David Shipley as Jacob Marley, Kinon Keplinger as Young Scrooge, Elizabeth Goodman Barnhart as Mrs. Dilber and Andrew David Barczak as Turkey Boy
Carly Nahon plays a potentially compelling Ghost of Christmas Past, but her large stage hair creates a barrier. Every time she's in profile (which is plenty of the time -- and I was in a good seat) her face disappears, we see nothing but a disconnect of fluffy, blonde curls. Cheating out farther, positioning herself upstage of Fuller, subduing that hair--or a combination of those adjustments--would save the day.
The other thing I found myself craving was more energy from the ensemble. When the choreography is basic and songs are simple and in unison, vitality and momentum are everything. In this type of show, it's almost impossible to overdo it.
All in all, this is a wonderful show with a message worth contemplating this time of year. And again, this is your last chance to see the wonderflu Barry Fuller inhabit this classic role.
A Christmas Carol plays from December 6th - 23 on the Lohrey Stage with weekend evening shows and matinees and some weeknight performances. For more information, visit theatrememphis.org or call (901) 682-8323
Photo Courtesy of Theatre Memphis.