BWW Reviews: The Rep's 'Christmas Carol' Gives Gifts of Charity and Song
To capture the long standing tradition of The Milwaukee Rep's production of A Christmas Carol that opened last weekend at the Historic Pabst Theater, many families or friends crowd around the grand Christmas tree adorned and standing in the center of Milwaukee's Patty and Jay Baker Theater Complex. They punch the button on their smart phones; take pictures of these memories withstanding the test of time, an annual event to be cherished. The Rep's production of A Christmas Carol has run consecutively each December for 38 years, a holiday present waiting to be opened again and again.
Through these years, many adaptations have come and subsequently changed in an efforrt to further insight and meaning into the literature. Currently the Rep's original Joseph Hanreddy and Edward Morgan production of Charles Dickens' novella fills the stage with glorious carols, each underscoring and reflecting Ebenezer Scrooge's redemption from the beloved story first written in 1843. While the first staged version of Carol followed a year later in 1844, the Milwaukee Rep presents the county's suppsodely second longest running seasonal production of A Christmas Carol.
Year after year, the familiar carols still sound as sweet, and in this adaptation several include "O Come, O Come Emmanuel," "I Saw Three Ships" and "The Holly and the Ivy," that ring in the season by revisiting the English songbook. The unique blending of choral music with the familiar tale underscores Dickens's redemptive message together with his timeless words of social commentary.
Director Aaron Posner returns to the production and tweaks Christopher Donahue's portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge, allowing Donahue a more humorous disposition. Yet, Scrooge still appears as the repentant Christmas rebel with real "Humbug" in his heart that reveals a misguided man more a reflection of his lonely past. Then to Milwaukee's delight, a former Scrooge from the company's past, James Pickering also returns to the cast in numerous and also surprising roles for 2013.
Also reprising roles in this production, Melody Betts adds an exultant voice to the Ghost of Christmas Present, including the carols throughout her brief time on earth. Marty Gobel and Jonathan Wainwright embody the Cratchit's youthful energy while another chorus of young performers crowd the stage to revel in childlike wonder. A wonder also seen through the eyes of Smudge acted by Carlos Meyer and the iconic Tiny Tim, played by a second season actor Jack Trettin alternating with the debuting Josh MacCudden.
Whether sung by Luigi Sottile's Fred, Emily Trask's Catherine or Leah Schiman's Fan, a talented cast of actors offer carols in almost every scene during the performance, the gift of song performed a cappella and live instead of downloaded from a device to Milwaukee audiences. Songs that celebrate the message Marley regrets from the afterlife when he offers his plea to a hard hearted, reluctant Scrooge, concerned only with economics, and rails: "Mankind was my business, charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were my business."
Here in these words is where the heart of A Christmas Carol resonates when the audience sees Tiny Tim's effervescent optimism dispel his personal adversity. Optimism and hope that eventually help restore Scrooge's belief he can transform his own heart, a family's heart and a child's life. Charitable acts seen on stage and available to be given or received by anyone watching in the audience.
In a most remembered version of only one of the Rep's A Christmas Carol from their 38-season legacy, Fred places his gift of a red scarf in his Uncle Scrooge's pocket before he leaves Ebenezer's office at the beginning of the play. A gift given with love, yet, remains unnoticed and refused. Until Scrooge discovers this gift in his pocket after the spirits have redeemed his heart on Christmas morning. Scrooge's joy in the gift now apparent when he places the scarlet scarf around his neck and then walks along London's streets shouting Merry Christmas. Gifts are really only gifts when accepted, and while Scrooge laughs and smiles to his fellow humanity, the red scarf symbolized his redeemed heart, Fred's gift finally received.
Each year The Rep offers this cultural treasure, the gift of Dickens' A Christmas Carol to Milwaukee, performed with song and voice in a radiant production that many theatergoers consider one of the best in the country. May this be the time to give the gift of theater to family and friends, push the button on a smart phone for a picture beside an elegant Christmas tree (one woman commented the grand tree in the theater complex was the first live tree she had seen in quite a while) and make memories to revel in the seasonal cheer.