BWW Reviews: Renaissance Players' A CHRISTMAS CAROL, THE MUSICAL Offers Tuneful Holiday Diversion

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Ever wonder how those other Cratchit kids must have felt cast in the shadow of their younger brother Tiny Tim's star-making turn in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol? Let's face it, the kid's a ringer: he's lovable, cute and wise beyond his years and his health, or lack thereof, make him a sentimental favorite of audiences – and clearly, a favorite of his parents. While poor Martha is off being apprenticed to a milliner (who, granted, gives her a day off for Christmas), Tiny Tim is treated tenderly and attentively by dear ol' mum and dad (who fairly dotes on his youngest offspring-now even I can understand why my older siblings dislike me so).

And while he is not the central focus of Dickens' novella-rather the spotlight falls squarely upon that miserly Scrooge guy-the story of Tiny Tim's near-deification and his subsequent recovery from a certain-to-be fatal malady might provide fodder for writers looking for a new take on the story. Since its 1843 publication, A Christmas Carol has provided gist for the mill of writers all over the world, seeking to capitalize on the timeless tale for entertainment purposes (and the resulting cash cow for theater coffers).

In particular, Dickens' A Christmas Carol has provided much inspiration for the theater, including the musical version created by Alan Menken, Lynn Ahrens and Mike Ockrent for presentation at Radio City Music Hall from 1994 through 2003. The Renaissance Players, the community theater company at Dickson's Renaissance Center, brings the musical to Tennessee audiences for a 2011 run that proves to be an entertaining, holiday season diversion that brims over with joy-filled enthusiasm and the right amount of heartfelt sentiment to make it a likely to become an annual tradition.

Interestingly--playing up the whole Tiny Tim v. The Cratchit Kids scenario-Menken, Ahrens and Ockrent include a musical number entitled "You Mean More To Me" that Bob Cratchit sings to his youngest child, extolling the tyke's virtues and proclaiming his undying devotion to the youngster. Forget those other layabouts--Martha can sew fake cherries on all the bonnets in England so far as her father is concerned and that oldest boy can go work in Scrooge's counting house if he wants-Tiny Tim is the true star of the Cratchitt Family Variety Hour.

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Well, finally I am able to get that off my chest (wait…remember what W.C. Fields said about working with children and animals? I think he was referring to Tiny Tim, the little scamp!) and now I can focus on the other elements that make the musical version of A Christmas Carol such a winning holiday treat. The show sports a laudable pedigree, coming from the creative triumvirate of Menken, Ahrens and Ockrent, and the somewhat shopworn story of Scrooge, Marley and a trio of ghostly tour guides is given a fresh gloss-over in this adaptation.

"A Place Called Home," clearly is the best-known song from the show's score (and easily its most memorably and melodic), and it's given several reprises to make its lovely, even inspiring, point to give context to the story of how Scrooge became a harshly cruel businessman. The show-opening "Jolly Good Time" sets the proper tone for the show as it introduces the cast of characters amid the holiday revelry of London's denizens, both rich and poor. Marley's spirit is introduced through "Link by Link," a production number that surrounds Scrooge with a chorus of frightening spectres, and Act Two's introduction of The Ghost of Christmas Past is followed adroitly by a chorus of showgirls singing "Abundance of Charity." While much of the music is forgettable in a way that a lot of contemporary showtunes tend to be, the score nonetheless works well in relating Dickens' tale, conveying a sense of character and setting in so doing.

Unique to A Christmas Carol the Musical is the scene in which we learn that Scrooge's father was sent away to debtors' prison when he was unable to pay his debts, urging his son to "save his pennies" as he leaves-which is a retelling of events from the life of Charles Dickens himself. In another change from the novella and subsequent productions that evolved from it, the object of Scrooge's youthful affections herein is known as Emily, but is perhaps best known as Belle in other adaptations.

The play's action moves at a fluid pace, each scene unfolding before you with a minimum of distraction and the complete and total focus of director Nathan W. Brown's estimable cast of community volunteers. The Renaissance Players is made up of actors from all walks of life, and somehow Brown (who doubles as music director) and choreographer Bryan J. Wlas (who does double-duty himself as Bob Cratchit) are able to bring all their castmembers-regardless of their individual skills and experiences-to the same amazingly confident level of performance.

Wlas, one of the most talented actors in the region, plays Bob Cratchit with confidence,joined by Tory Gunn as his wife, Tate Blunt as the scene-stealing Tiny Tim, and Ashton Frey, Kedzie Frey and Shane Young as the other Cratchit progeny. Nathan Skyy Rodriguez is cast as nephew Fred, Tom Whiting is scarily made up to become Jacob Marley and Carey Thompson and Laura Wiliams are the gracious Mr. and Mrs. Fezziwig (their "Mr. Fezziwig's Annual Christmas Ball" is the most successful production number).  Led by veteran actor Greg Frey, who plays Ebenezer Scrooge with the requisite menacing tone belying his natural charm and showmanship, the cast features a cadre of local actors totally committed to the task at hand. He is guided on his revelatory journey of self-discovery by Arica Ward, delightful as the Ghost of Christmas Past (looking for all the world like a brunette Bernadette Peters as she shows Scrooge tableaux from his youth and sings "The Lights of Long Ago" to show off her lovelly voice), and Shane Kopischke, ideal as the fun-loving Ghost of Christmas Present, and a silent Vickie Songer as the Ghost of Christmas Future (in this production, the Ghost of Christmas Future is a woman in white, instead of a beastly, frightening, otherworldly character from a tale of horror-the musical's tone is resolutely upbeat instead of dour and dark).

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Zane Jordan is particularly impressive as the young Ebenezer Scrooge, playing him with sincerity and a spirited energy. Jordan's stage presence is palpable and it's near impossible to keep your eyes off him as he delivers a full-throttle performance of the miser as a romantic young man. His scenes with Hannah McGinley, who plays the lovely Emily, are wonderfully warm, making the character of Scrooge all the more appealing and rendering his current sad state of affairs more relatable. McGinley, who's as talented as they come, shows off her beautiful voice to perfection and her lovely smile fills the theater with her own high-wattage star power.

What with all the assembled energy provided by the 43-member cast (which includes strong turns from Megan Gallup, Jean Thompson and a clutch of talented Wooten children-Kaila, Cameron, Arianna and Adam), A Christmas Carol the Musical offers a grand way of celebrating the season. But, truth be told, it's the amazing technical wizardry of Nathan A. Ray that actually puts the production over the top. Ray creates some wonderful stagecraft through his special effects, giving audiences the necessary thrills and chills. And kudos to Rachel Gallup (does the woman ever rest?) for providing the cast members the perfect costumes for their characters.

A Christmas Carol the Musical. Music by Alan Menken. Lyrics by Lynn Ahrens. Book by Mike Ockrent and Lynn Ahrens. Directed and music directed by Nathan W. Brown. Choreographed by Bryan J. Wlas. Presented by The Renaissance Players at The Renaissance Center, Dickson. Through December 18. For details, go to www.rcenter.org.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


 
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